- Associated Press - Thursday, March 6, 2014

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Maine’s American Indian tribes that have long seen gambling as the remedy for high unemployment and sluggish economic growth in their communities are a step closer to being able to operate casinos after winning initial approval in the Democratic-controlled House on Thursday.

After several hours of debate, the House voted to overturn the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee’s recommendation that the proposals be killed, giving new life to the bills that would allow the Passamaquoddy Tribe to build a casino in Washington County and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians to operate one in Aroostook County.

Tribal representatives who’ve been working to bring gambling to their counties for decades stressed their frustration with consistently being denied the ability to do so while casinos have opened in Bangor and Oxford and reaped significant economic benefits for their communities.

“Time and time again we have been told now is not the time, that we must develop a better plan or work more closely with local communities,” said Rep. Madonna Soctomah, who represents the Passamaquoddy Tribe in the Legislature and backed the first bill to bring a gambling facility to Washington County in the early ‘90s. “At the same time, the state has granted licenses to two gaming facilities. We only ask that we be given the same opportunity.”

But operators of Maine’s two existing casinos are fiercely opposing the bills and contend that new gambling in the Maine, with a population of only 1.3 million, will devastate their businesses. The measures are also getting push back from lawmakers who want to implement a competitive bidding process before Maine adds new casinos, to ensure the state gets the best deal. Casino development has been largely steered by citizen initiative, meaning the state has had no say on things like licensing fees.

“These bills are a continuation of our state’s fragmented and disorganized approach to gaming policy,” said Democratic Rep. Louis Luchini of Ellsworth.

Another measure that advanced to the Senate on Thursday would let the Penobscot Nation and Aroostook Band of Micmacs run high-stakes electronic beano games. The House also defeated an effort to kill a bill that would allow the harness racing facility Scarborough Downs to operate slot machines, but the measure awaits further action in the House.

Lawmakers supporting the measure for Scarborough Downs argued that slot machines are the only way to keep alive the harness racing industry, which has a strong history in Maine and has lost many of its gamblers to the casinos. Others stressed the economic benefits like new jobs the expanded gambling would bring to the state that’s still struggling to get back the jobs it lost during the recession.

“I think we need to start in this state saying ‘yes’ to jobs,” said Republican Rep. Wayne Parry of Arundel. “If we continue to say ‘yes’ to jobs - but ‘not those jobs’ - we continue to show businesses around the country that we might like jobs, but not like theirs.”

The Passamaquoddy Tribe applauded the House’s action on Thursday, but the proposals still face a long road in the Legislature and, even then, voters in Washington County will get the final say.

“We’re very happy with the vote, but we’ve been here before,” said Joseph Socobasin, chief of the tribe. “We certainly have some work left to do. We’re not across the finish line yet.”


Follow Alanna Durkin on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/aedurkin

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