It’s been a few years since Maine has voted on gambling, so it must be just about time to take another whack at it, right? Politicians in the State House would appear to think so, since lawmakers are considering allowing Native American tribes to open their own casinos. The idea has come up again as part of proposed reforms to the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act that would expand the tribes’ sovereignty overall.

Expanding tribal sovereignty beyond its current scope is tricky enough as a concept without reconsidering tribal gaming: There are a whole host of legal, environmental, and taxation issues for the Legislature to consider. They’re debating these critical issues in the shorter second session at the same time as the supplemental budget and more legislation than usual, so it’s asking a lot of our part-time legislators.

Voters have rejected the idea of Native American casinos time and time again in the state, so if the Legislature and the governor moved forward with approving them now, they’d be disregarding the will of the people. If they do approve tribal casinos, they ought to refer it directly to the people for another vote. If they don’t send it out for a vote after approval, the legislation will probably eventually wind up on the ballot anyway, resulting in another costly and divisive campaign.

The state’s existing casinos, Oxford Casino and Hollywood Casino in Bangor, have made it abundantly clear that they like their current monopoly just fine, thank you very much. That’s why, though it may seem counterintuitive, the biggest opponent of gambling expansion in Maine is the gaming industry itself. It’s a blatant example of crony capitalism that the industry is desperate to perpetuate, because they’d rather have a few big casinos in the state instead of sharing in the wealth. Now, they’ll argue that the market is saturated, but that ought to be up to the market – that is, investors and consumers – to decide, not the current license-holders or state government.

That argument also doesn’t hold up very well under close scrutiny. When the operators of the two existing casinos say that, all they mean is that opening any new facilities would hurt their bottom line – not that it would be bad for consumer choice or the state as a whole. If the market were truly saturated, then their profit margins wouldn’t be hurt, because consumers wouldn’t visit new facilities. Those two facilities were both designed to be large ones, trucking in people from a farther distance – not just dependent on local traffic. That business model begins to fall apart if their current monopoly is stripped away, which is why they’ll do anything to preserve it – even work with the anti-gambling activists who once opposed any casinos in the state at all.

They’re able to profit from and perpetuate that monopoly only because the Legislature has consistently failed to do its job of properly regulating casinos in Maine. If they had, then they’d do for gambling what they did for craft beer or are doing for recreational marijuana: Establish a fair, consistent set of regulations to govern the industry. If they’d done that years ago, then Maine would have a well-regulated marketplace for gambling that would have a clear process to open new establishments. If that system existed, then the tribes wouldn’t need to get special permission from the state government to open up a casino. Instead, they could jump through whatever regulatory hoops they needed to after they found investors, just like with other legal businesses.

It may seem as if expanding casino gaming to Maine’s tribes will help break Oxford and Bangor’s monopoly, but instead all it does is grant yet another exclusive license, further cementing that business model in the industry. It also sets them up for failure down the road: If the Legislature ever does get its act together and set up a fair system for licensing casinos, any tribal casinos that are established could see their business suffer from expansion just like the Oxford and Bangor casinos would.

Rather than allowing the establishment of tribal casinos as part of reforming the Claims Act, the Legislature should reconsider a more fair way to regulate the industry as a whole. If the tribes need help with economic development, a better solution would be tax breaks or grants, rather than letting them in on a monopoly that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.