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Politics

Southern Maine Casino Not in the Cards After Vote by Maine House

A bill that would pave the way for a third casino in either Cumberland or York counties failed Wednesday in the Maine House.

While proponents argued the new facility would have a $500 million impact on the region, opponents says the state cannot afford to support three casinos. Others dismissed the measure as a poorly crafted bill that ignored the recommendations of gaming industry consultants.

The debate over the third casino bill played out for more than an hour and begin with a 30,000-foot perspective on gaming offered by Rep. Louis Luchini. The Ellsworth Democrat and House chair of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee says if Maine were to move forward with another major gambling venue, it needed to consider the recommendations to the Legislature submitted by a gaming consultant and evaluate the experiences of other states.

"The proposal before us doesn't do any of those things, it is short-term, revenue is short-sighted and it's bad policy on how to grow gaming," Luchini says.

From there, it didn't take long for the politics of the discussion to reflect geography. Lawmakers from eastern Maine, home of the Hollywood Casino in Bangor, and those from western Maine, where the Oxford Casino is located, say they didn't believe Maine could support a third casino without adversely impacting gaming revenues at the existing facilities. Rep. Wayne Parry, a Republican from the York County town of Arundel, says those kind of arguments defied logic.

"If we go by that theory, then we probably shouldn't open another restaurant in Maine because the restaurants that open are competing with other restaurants, so if we go by that theory, you know I think we should not open a lot of different businesses, if it's going to compete with other businesses," Parry says.

A little more than a year ago, the state received a $150,000 study from the New Jersey-based WhiteSand Gaming group which recommended that the state could support casinos in southern Maine and Washington County providing that the proper amount of investment was made locally and that Maine adopts standardized tax rates and licensing fees. Rep. Diane Russell, a Portland Democrat, has been fighting for a statewide policy on gaming for years. But she says what's unfolded are competing recommendations, two that suggest Maine quit with two casinos and one that it could consider adding as many as two more. Russell says that leaves only one option.

"The cease fire on gaming referenda is over, we have an obligation to finally put together a comprehensive statewide policy that is fair," Russell says.

"I was also interested to learn today that we had a cease-fire with regards to casino gambling -- apparently somebody forgot to tell our native American tribes," says Rep. Jeff Evangelos.

Rep. Jeff Evangelos, an independent from Friendship, was among several lawmakers who objected to the measure on the basis that it did not address the needs of Maine's Indian tribes which have been trying for decades to obtain approval for a casino or slot machine parlor in Washington County. Other lawmakers objected to the bill's failure to contain a provision for a statewide vote which Rep. Ben Chipman, a Portland Democrat, says amounted to an end run around the voters. But others argued that Maine needs to stake out its share of new gambling revenues that are going to open up with the expansion of casinos in Massachusetts. Rep. Karen Vachon, a Scarborough Republican, says a southern Maine casino is long overdue.

"Maine needs to think big on this issue -- not territorial," Vachon says. "A rising tide raises all ships. Maine needs to compete because you know what? Massachusetts is knocking on our door."

Lawmakers in the House eventually defeated the bill 83-61 in a preliminary vote. If the Maine Senate follows suit, it will be fine with Gov. Paul LePage who told an audience in Mexico Tuesday night that a third casino in Maine would be a train wreck waiting to happen for other existing casinos in the state.