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Bill would give Maine tribes exclusive rights to lucrative mobile sports gambling market

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu shows his receipt after placing the first legal sports wagering bet on his mobile phone in Manchester, N.H., Dec. 30, 2019.
Charles Krupa
AP file
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu shows his receipt after placing the first legal sports wagering bet on his mobile phone in Manchester, N.H., Dec. 30, 2019.

Maine's four Wabanaki tribes and the administration of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills are backing a bill that would give the tribes exclusive rights to mobile sports gambling — a key part of an exploding sports-betting industry that the state has not yet entered.

The proposal has been framed by the governor's office as a compromise with the Wabanaki, who are seeking the same sovereignty rights enjoyed by 570 other federally recognized tribes. But the proposal is drawing stiff opposition from Maine's two casino operators and other gambling interests.

One by one, tribal members on Thursday told the Judiciary Committee that the bill is no substitute for an overhaul of a decades-old agreement between the state and tribal nations that drew more than 1,000 voices of support during a public hearing held earlier this week.

The new bill, sponsored by assistant Democratic House leader Rachel Talbot Ross, of Portland, contains several initiatives agreed to by the tribes and Mills administration, including sales tax exemptions for transactions on tribal lands and creating a process for state agencies to consult with the tribes on policies that affect them.

But its key feature would give the four tribes exclusive rights to hold four mobile sports betting licenses and, according to Passamaquoddy attorney Michael-Corey Hinton, access to an industry long denied them at the ballot box and in the Legislature.

"The way that Maine's gaming industry has evolved has explicitly left out and discriminated against Native Americans," Hinton says. "This legislation recognizes that inequity must be addressed."

Hinton is referring to the tribal gaming prohibition included in the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, the sweeping agreement that the Wabanaki are now trying to change.

Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis says the gaming prohibition stripped the Maine tribes of an economic development tool used by other Native American nations across the United States and, with that, denied them a path to economic self-determination.

"No tribe — and the national chairman of the Indian Gaming Association will tell you the same thing — no tribe want to do these types of businesses in and by themselves," he says. "They're really a short-term tool with a short-term solution, with capital infusion, to get to a greater good."

Nearly everyone who testified in support of the bill Thursday said the gaming provision is a small concession to Maine's Wabanaki tribes as they seek broader agreement with the Mills administration on the Settlement Act.

But that's not how established gambling interests in the state are viewing it.

"To be candid, we find this bill to be a little bit of a headscratcher," says Chris Jackson, a lobbyist speaking on behalf of Hollywood Casino in Bangor, a facility that would be barred from participating in the mobile sports betting market if the new proposal becomes law.

Jackson says the bill could also torpedo efforts to pass a sports betting bill carried over from last year.

That effort was designed to appease all the interests lining up for a share of an online sports betting market that Goldman Sachs recently predicted will be worth $39 billion in the U.S. over the next 10 years.

And it allows the tribes to operate mobile sports betting licenses — just not all of them.

"That bill gave retail and tethered mobile sports betting licenses to the tribes, OTBs (off-track betting facilities), commercial tracks and the casinos," Jackson says.

Gaming interests have been hoping for final approval of that bill before the end of the legislative session.

But the new tribal gaming proposal will complicate the old sports betting bill's passage, which is why it's drawing swift opposition from Maine's two casinos, Hollywood Casino in Bangor and the Oxford Casino.

Even off-track betting facilities, which would gain access to sports betting in either bill, testified against the new one on Thursday.

So did the Sports Betting Alliance, an industry group representing sites like FanDuel and DraftKings, which argued that the new proposal would limit competition.

Lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee are expected to hold a work session on the bill in the coming weeks.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.