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Politics

Tribal Casino Bill in Trouble, Despite Strong Support in Maine House

AUGUSTA, Maine - Odds dimmed Monday for a proposed tribal casino after the Maine Senate narrowly rejected the measure in an 18-16 vote. The bill received a huge share of support in the Maine House last week, when lawmakers said they favored a new tribal casino that would operate in Aroostook or Washington counties.

Members of the Maine Senate, however, worried that, instead of delivering jobs and revenue for Maine's Indian tribes, the bill could actually erode revenues at Maine's other two casinos.

The tribal casino bill arrived from the House with a veto-proof 114-26 vote of support from lawmakers who view the measure as a job creator and a means to provide Maine's Indian tribes with much needed new revenue. Depending on the results of an economic analysis, the bill would allow the casino to be built in either Aroostook or Washington county -- each of which lags behind the rest of Maine when it comes to job growth.

Sen. Mike Willette, a Presque Isle Republican, says both regions would benefit from Canadian gaming tourism dollars. "Would a potential Maliseet tribal casino in Houlton be the panacea, the cure-all or the single restorative effort, for the region's economic recovery? No," Willette said. "But it's a shot in the arm."

The bill was crafted by the Legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee and would allow Maine's four federally recognized Indian tribes to seek competitive bids to determine whether a casino in Aroostook County or Washington County would produce the greatest amount economic development for the region and revenues for the tribes.

Bidders would have to submit a $100,000 fee to a Casino Development Commission, which would award a five-year operating license for a $1 million fee. A statewide vote on the new casino would not be required, but voters in Washington and Aroostook Counties would have to approve the plan in a countywide referendum.

Willette and other supporters of the plan relied heavily on the findings of last year's White Sands Gaming report that concluded that a third casino could operate in Maine without creating an adverse impact on the state's other two casinos.

"I'm encouraged that the White Sands report clearly quantifies the current regional gaming market's capacity for additional commercial casino gaming in Maine, allows for all gaming facilities to sustain their market share where waging is conducted statewide," Willette said. "The White Sands report should finally invalidate the whispering in the halls that additional gaming in Maine is not possible."

"I think everybody in this room would agree that we already have enough casinos for the number of gamblers in the state," said Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick, a Democrat from Bangor where the state's first casino, Hollywood Casino, opened its doors nine years ago.

Gratwick argued that Hollywood Casino and Maine's second gaming business, the Oxford Casino, operate in a fragile market and that neither is operating at full capacity. Gratwick said that, while the state has not been fair to the tribes on the gaming issue over the last 14 years, it's wrong in his view to suggest that the tribes are not already benefiting from the state's existing casinos.

Under current law, Gratwick said the Passamquoddy and Penobscot tribes share $2.4 million from the slot revenues, and that under LD 1446, they would still receive that money. "The tribes are, therefore, not only going to have their own revenues from the casinos but they're going to be getting it from the current two existing ones," Gratwick said. "This seems like a very unequal playing field."

The House and Senate are now at odds in their support for the measure. Without a reconsideration vote in the Senate, the bill will die between the two bodies.