Having been turned down for over 20 years, the Passamaquoddy Tribe once again is rolling the dice for a gaming facility, this time for slot machines and high-stakes beano in Calais. The tribe's latest effort is only one among several gaming proposals that the legislature is now considering.
At a public hearing on January 8, the legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee heard testimony on six gambling-related bills, including the Passamaquoddys' proposal. While supporters for the bills asked for fairness in dividing up the gambling pot, opponents from the two established casinos feared loss of revenue if more facilities are approved.
LD 1520, sponsored by Rep. Madonna Soctomah of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, would allow the tribe to operate up to 750 slot machines at a gaming facility in Washington County at which high-stakes beano is conducted by the tribe. The bill also would allow the tribe to determine the days that it operates high-stakes beano. Under the bill, the gaming proposals in the bill would have to be approved by the voters in Washington County.
Rep. Soctomah testified, "The tribe has been trying for many years to promote strong, sustainable economic development within its communities." Noting the high unemployment rate and the limited economic opportunities for the tribe, she pointed out that the Passamaquoddys have been trying since 1992 to establish a gaming facility. While arguments in the past concerned whether casino gambling should be allowed in the state, she noted, "It's now clear whether Maine should have a gaming market has been decided" with the establishment of Hollywood Casino in Bangor and the Oxford Casino in western Maine. She stated, "I don't believe in one entity taking the whole bundle of carrots. Maine should decide how much gaming you want and divvy it up."
Rep. Joyce Maker of Calais spoke in support of the bill and read a letter from Calais City Manager Diane Barnes, which noted that for more than 20 years the city of Calais has supported the tribe's efforts.
Passamaquoddy Tribal Councillor Christine Downing read a letter from Chief Joseph Socobasin of Indian Township and Chief Clayton Cleaves of Sipayik, which stated that tribal officials have met with developers who are interested in a gaming project in Calais. The chiefs noted that the Passamaquoddys will support gaming for other Maine tribes and for southern Maine developers. They added that they cannot support "protectionism" for the two existing casinos.
Opposition to the Passamaquoddy bill and all of the other gaming bills came from the general managers of Hollywood Casino and Oxford Casino and the Bangor city manager, who feared the "cannibalization" of the two casinos, as the Hollywood general manager stated, with an expansion of gaming in the state. They felt the state has reached its saturation point with gambling.
Other bills that were considered during the hearing would allow the Houlton Band of Maliseets to operate a casino with table games and up to 1,500 slot machines in Houlton and would have the state solicit bids for the operation of a new casino, with up to 2,000 slot machines, in southern Maine. Rep. Henry John Bear of the Houlton Band of Maliseets withdrew a bill he had previously submitted that would provide the Maliseets with the same distribution of net slot machine income from casino slot machines as is provided to the Penobscot Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe under current law. LD 1675, for a casino in southern Maine, also was withdrawn,
A fifth bill, LD 1111, would allow the state's harness racing industry to compete with casino gaming by having up to 1,500 slot machines next to harness racing tracks, which would allow the Scarborough Downs raceway to create a racino. A previous racino proposal for Scarborough Downs failed in a 2011 statewide vote.
Finally, LD 31 would increase gaming opportunities for charitable fraternal and veterans' organizations by allowing them to operate up to five slot machines.
In an interview, Passamaquoddy Chief Clayton Cleaves says the tribe is "working hard to make [gaming] a reality in Washington County." He notes that the state has its lottery and that casinos have been approved and established in Bangor and Oxford, while the tribe's plans for a casino or racino, first proposed in 1992, have been turned down by the legislature, vetoed by then Governor Baldacci or rejected in statewide referenda. Cleaves observes, "Everybody gets a piece of the pie, and all we get are the crumbs at the very end."
In 2012 the legislature had approved a bill that placed a temporary moratorium on new gaming facilities while a competitive bid process for future casinos was established. The bill exempted the Passamaquoddy Tribe's proposal for slot machines in Washington County from the moratorium, but legislation would have to be enacted to allow for a tribal gaming facility. The bill also established the Commission to Develop a Competitive Bidding Process for the Operation of Additional Casinos and Slot Machine Facilities, and in September 2013 the commission voted 10-9, with one abstention, to recommend that gambling be expanded in the state and that the bills all be approved.
The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will be hearing a presentation about the commission's report next week and will hold a work session on the different bills on January 15.. Rep. Louis Luchini of Ellsworth, who was a member of the gaming study commission and is the House chair of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, says it's hard to tell at this point what the committee may do, since it's early in the process. He notes, though, that all of the legislators who were members of the gaming study commission had voted against the commission's recommendation, since they wanted a regulatory framework for gaming in the state to be established. Those in favor of the recommendation to expand gambling represented gaming interests and the tribes.