With the prospect of yet another casino referendum headed to the ballot, a few legislators from both sides of the aisle are taking a look at a creative approach to circumvent it: Pass it.

With every citizen initiative, the Legislature has the option to pass it as is rather than sending it to the people for a vote, and Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, and Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, have proposed doing that with the casino initiative, then coming back and repealing it.

It’s understandable that Mason and Luchini are frustrated with a new casino vote, and they’re to be applauded for their creative approach. Legislators can always pass a referendum or craft a competing measure to it, and both of these are tools that ought to be considered more often. However, even if their gamble is successful, that shouldn’t be the end of this current phase in the discussion of casino gambling in Maine.

If the new casino initiative is successfully circumvented, that doesn’t mean casino developers and their compatriots will be done with Maine. On the contrary, there’s every reason to believe they will just come back and try, again, until they manage to push this scheme — or some other one — through. That’s why it’s high time for the Legislature to create some permanent regulations governing the establishment of casinos in Maine, so backers have a normal process to use to try and open one.

Legislators, to their credit, have tried to address this issue in the past, but opponents of casino gambling in any form (from both the left and the right) have squashed these efforts. Lately they’ve been joined by supporters of Maine’s casinos in Oxford and Bangor, who don’t want to see those facilities done in by any additional competition. It’s long past time for the Legislature to move past these objections and establish a normal regulatory regime for gaming facilities, the same way we have for other businesses from car dealerships to hotels to restaurants.

Now, that’s not to say that opening a new casino should be easy — it shouldn’t. If someone wants to open a casino, they should absolutely face a large hurdle to do so. However, the Legislature can establish new regulations that are at least as burdensome — if not more so — than what some out-of-state developer has to pay to get a citizen initiative on the ballot. The process established by the Legislature can involve not only state agencies, but local government as well, ensuring that any new casino built has the support of the people nearby.

Now that Maine has two casinos, we no longer face the question of whether to allow them, but of how they are established and what regulations they operate under. There’s no reason to believe that creating a reasonable process to allow more casinos to open in Maine will lead to a dramatic expansion of gaming in the state. Just as with any large business, casino developers will take market forces into consideration. That will impose some natural restrictions on the expansion of gaming in Maine in addition to any regulatory restrictions the state imposes.

It’s right to be sick and tired of these endless referenda about casinos, but we can’t just ignore the problem. We don’t need a market so wide open and unregulated that casinos become a ubiquitous part of life all over the state. However, we also can’t afford to completely shut off the market, as we have now, thanks to our citizen initiative process. If we do that, continuing with the status quo, we’ll continue to have to do battle with deceitful ballot initiatives trying to set up new casinos in Maine.

The solution to the problem of these endless casino referenda is not to go after the referendum process, or to use one-time loopholes to work around them. The latter might work with this referendum, but it shouldn’t be used every time a citizen initiative — whether about casinos or anything else — is headed to a vote. If the York County casino does make it to the ballot, Mainers would be wise to reject it, as it’s a poorly-written law intended to benefit a few people. After it’s rejected at the polls, we should demand that our legislators return to work on the issue and institute a new process to allow limited casinos in the state, as Massachusetts has done. That would be the reasonable approach, and that’s what our state deserves.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at: [email protected]