The odds of state approval for the Passamaquoddy Tribe's proposal for a casino in Calais increased substantially after the Maine House of Representatives voted down a committee's recommendation against the measure and gave its support for the casino. On March 6, the House voted 99-37 against the "ought not to pass" recommendation of the majority of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, and the amended bill recommended by the minority on the committee was given initial approval. The Senate was expected to vote on the bill this week or next.
During the debate on the floor of the House, Passamaquoddy Rep. Madonna Soctomah spoke passionately in both Passamaquoddy and English in support of allowing the tribe to open a casino. She said the bill "is not about gambling. It's about jobs in the local area, about investment in the surrounding regions where we live, about commercial development that will stimulate long-term economic growth in the area." While tribes across the country have been able to open casinos that have helped them develop a sustainable economic base, the Passamaquoddy have not been allowed to establish one in Maine. She stated that it is now clear that the question of whether Maine should have a gaming market has been settled, now that the state has two casinos, in Bangor and Oxford. She noted that since the tribe had first proposed a casino in Calais in 1992, "time and time again we've been told that now is not the time." She added, "We need a vibrant tribal community. That can only happen knowing we control our destiny."
Rep. Joyce Maker of Calais also spoke in support the bill, reading from a speech that then Senate President Kevin Raye gave in the Senate in 2011 in support of a similar tribal gaming proposal. Raye had noted that the Passamaquoddys have the highest rates of poverty and unemployment and stated that it was an indignity to be told by the legislature that they "don't have the right to determine" their own economic future. Since two casinos have been opened in the state, yet the Passamaquoddy proposal has been turned down for over 20 years, "principles of fairness and equity" demand that the legislature should approve a tribal casino, he stated.
Rep. Diane Russell of Portland stated, "If there was ever a group that has earned the right to have a casino it's the Passamaquoddy."
While Rep. Bernard Ayotte of Caswell said he is opposed to gambling, he commented, "But I feel my philosophy should not stand in the way of common sense and fairness." He added that legislators now had a choice, asking, "Do we continue the discrimination we have for so long carried out against our brother?"
Rep. Kenneth Fredette of Newport, who grew up in Washington County, also supported the bill. While noting that gaming may not be the best way to develop an economy and that those who can least afford to gamble are the ones who often do, he said that the proposal is an opportunity for Washington County and the Passamaquoddy. "Let them make the decision. Let us not stand in the way."
Echoing that statement, Rep. Janice Cooper of Yarmouth stated that the legislators "owe it to the Maine tribes" to let them follow "the economic course they wish to choose."
Rep. Katherine Cassidy of Lubec and Rep. Beth Turner of Burlington also were among the numerous legislators voicing support for the tribe's proposal.
The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee had voted 8-4 against recommending the bill. The minority report amends the bill to allow the tribe to operate a casino in Washington County where high-stakes beano operations have been authorized, while the original bill would have authorized only a slot machine facility. The casino would have to be approved in a referendum in Washington County.
Along with the Passamaquoddy casino, the House also voted to support a casino in Houlton proposed by the Houlton Band of Maliseets and a bill to allow the Penobscot Nation and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs to use electronic beano games.