As lawmakers reconsider just how much autonomy Native American tribes in Maine ought to have, Gov. Mills has floated an interesting proposal: giving the tribes the exclusive right to operate sports betting in the state of Maine. While it’s worthwhile to reexamine the structure of tribal sovereignty in Maine – currently, they don’t really enjoy that much – this idea is not only bad in and of itself, it may be counterproductive to both expanding tribal sovereignty and legalizing sports betting in Maine. Even if it fails, it may poison the well on both topics so thoroughly that the issues themselves are off the table for a number of years, leaving the state’s current system in place for both.

The funny thing is, Mills really should know better than to grant another monopoly for – well, anything – in the state of Maine. The problem with monopolies is that they rarely, if ever, work – especially in the long run. Even in situations where they’re (arguably) necessary, they often create just as many problems as they solve. For an example of that, we need only look at the recent debates over the terrible customer service provided by energy utilities like Versant and Central Maine Power to see how awful monopolies are. Monopolies frequently take the worst qualities from both the private sector and government, combining the two into a horrid monstrosity that only exists to ensure its own self-perpetuation.

Why, then, propose the creation of a new monopoly, when the very concept is obviously fundamentally flawed? It’s one thing to authorize a private monopoly in an industry where, arguably, it fits logistically, such as in energy; it’s quite another to impose one where it’s totally unnecessary and illogical, as Janet Mills is proposing now with sports betting in Maine. Maine has already made a mistake by granting a legal monopoly on gambling to the state’s two current casinos in Oxford and Bangor; we shouldn’t compound that error exponentially by granting tribes the exclusive right to sports betting in the state.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with allowing the tribes to operate a sports betting business, but giving them the exclusive right to do so isn’t the model we ought to be following. Instead of granting one more pointless monopoly, Maine should be trying to break up those that already exist wherever possible. So, instead of having just two casinos in the state and letting the tribes run all betting, we should be opening up both markets entirely to everyone who wants to try to enter them.

The big-money gambling interests from out of state that are rightly opposed to granting the tribes a monopoly on sports betting would be just as opposed to this gaming expansion – they don’t want to have to deal with the hassle of competing in a free market. We saw this a few years ago, when big-time fantasy sports operators got legislators to write a set of regulations that did more to protect them from real competition than protect the public interest in any meaningful way, shape, or form.

Supporters of that bill made the same specious arguments about fantasy sports that others are currently making about both casino gaming and sports betting, but it’s worth re-examining them whenever they arise. The claim is often made that limiting the market to a few large operators through regulations or a monopoly prevents the state from being overrun by smaller gaming interests that would take advantage of consumers. This, in a word, is nonsense.

There’s no reason to think that reasonable regulations of casino gaming or sports betting can’t be equitably crafted to allow for the operation of small, medium or large-sized operators in the industry. We’re able to do this perfectly well with other businesses, whether it’s restaurants, auto repair shops, or the construction industry.

There are businesses of various sizes in all of those fields, and they all have to abide by a certain set of regulations or face fines and loss of licenses. That standard model should be applied to casino gaming and sports betting as well, rather than handing out another monopoly. We can have a free, fair market for casino gaming and sports betting just as we do for many other industries, but it would require legislators to stand up to big-money special interests and actually do what’s best for the people of Maine, rather than focusing on their own reelection.

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

Comments are no longer available on this story