Maine Senate rejects efforts to expand gambling

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AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - The Maine Senate dealt a significant blow to yearslong efforts by the state’s American Indian tribes and harness horse racing industry to build casinos with the rejection of several gambling bills late Wednesday.

The bills that received positive votes in the House earlier this month found staunch opposition in the Senate, where lawmakers in both major political parties argued that the state must develop a regulatory process to control the future proliferation of gambling before giving the green light to any new casinos.

“I stand here asking everyone in the room tonight to press the pause button,” said Republican Sen. Garrett Mason, of Lisbon Falls. “All of our gaming that we have in the state has been passed by citizen referendum, and that means the policy is very helter-skelter, to say the least.”

Among the several bills shot down is one that would allow Scarborough Downs racetrack to ask the voters in the town to sign off on a casino, which it says it needs to stay afloat and compete with the state’s two existing casinos in Oxford and Bangor.

Proposals that would have allowed the Passamaquoddy Tribe to build a casino in Washington County and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians to operate one in Aroostook County, subject to county-wide referendum, also failed. They now head back to the House, where they face further votes.

Clayton Cleaves, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, said the rejection “hurts very much,” but he pledged that the tribe wouldn’t give up its fight for a casino in Washington County, which it says is desperate for jobs and economic growth.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage has said he would sign the bill for the Passamaquoddy Tribe if it gets to his desk, according to the tribe.

“All gaming bills went down today for an obvious reason: The state of Maine continues to protect their own gaming habits, their own gaming addiction,” Cleaves said, pointing to things such as the state lottery.

Lawmakers have long sought to create a competitive bidding process for casinos so the state can have more say over placement and licensing fees. But several efforts to do so have failed.

Democratic Sen. Linda Valentino, of Saco, urged lawmakers to keep the Scarborough Downs proposal alive so they can work together to amend it and finally implement a regulatory structure this session.

“We don’t need another task force … we need to take action and fix this bill,” she said. “If not, this issue will be back here again next year and the year after and the year after.”

Another bill turned down Wednesday would allow Maine’s veterans’ organizations including the American Legion to put slot machines in their clubs. The groups have said their bingo revenues have nearly dried up as their members turn to lottery tickets and casinos.

Supporters said the American Indian tribes and others have waited long enough for a chance to bring jobs to their communities.

“They should have the opportunity to develop as they want to,” Sen. Margaret Craven, a Democrat from Lewiston, said in support of the bill for the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. “We have overshadowed them long enough.”

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