The 2003 citizens’ initiative whose approval allowed for slot machine gambling in Maine was presented to voters as a way to revive the state’s long-suffering harness racing industry.

But harness racing is still in bad shape, though it’s received over $100 million in slot proceeds since Maine’s first legal gambling venue opened 10 years ago, a stunning MPBN report recently revealed. It’s a sorry situation β€” and it’s a safe bet that it won’t improve unless Maine legislators finally speak up and stop letting the gambling industry dictate public policy.

Allotted part of the net take from Maine’s two casinos, in Bangor and Oxford, the harness racing industry has received at least $7 million a year since the opening of Hollywood Slots in Bangor in 2006, the Maine Public Broadcasting Network reported last week. (Oxford Casino opened in 2012.)

However, despite this influx of revenue β€” in the form of higher racing purses, aid to the state’s agricultural fairs and direct payments to Bangor Raceway and Scarborough Downs β€”the number of harness-racing stallions, mares and foals registered in Maine has declined steadily, MPBN found. So has the amount of money bet each year on horse races in Maine.

Who determines how casino proceeds are divvied up in Maine? The same people who’ve written the many casino ballot questions that Maine voters have weighed over the years β€” namely, the casino operators. Maine legislators have consistently taken a back seat, abdicating their responsibility to regulate the industry, set limits on its growth and determine how to spend the state’s share of gaming revenue.

Casino proponents have argued that slot machine revenue will help keep farmland from being developed and support a traditional Maine industry. There are other ways, however, for property owners to preserve open space, such as working with a land trust. And if at least $7 million a year in subsidies isn’t enough to shore up harness racing, why should the industry keep getting the stipends?

As Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, who co-chairs the committee that oversees gambling in Maine, told MPBN: “If you’re giving $100 million to something, you really have to make sure that it works.” Exactly. Instead of allowing gambling interests to lead the way, it’s time for Maine lawmakers to seize the reins and the opportunity to advocate for the people they serve.

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