Bangor Daily News: Lawmakers applaud study that says Maine could add 2 casinos, increase state gaming revenues

By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

The fight over how many casinos can operate successfully in Maine could be entering its final round with the completion of a study that recommends where gaming facilities could survive in Maine and — more importantly for lawmakers — how the state can capitalize.

The Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over gaming, on Wednesday accepted a $150,000 report completed in recent months by a firm called WhiteSand Gaming. The report says a site in southern Maine near the Interstate 95 corridor could support a large casino resort, though it would likely carve into revenues at the existing Oxford Casino by about 20 percent.

The study also recommends that a second, smaller casino could be feasible in Washington or Aroostook counties.

Maine is home to two casinos — in Bangor and Oxford.

The report also makes a range of recommendations that address the core of recent arguments against approving more casinos: that the state doesn’t have a comprehensive gaming policy that spells out the size and scope of new casinos and — again, more importantly for lawmakers — where the revenues should flow. Of more than $1.1 billion that was gambled in Maine’s two casinos in 2013, about $51 million flowed to the state’s general funds, schools and a dozen other groups.

Lawmakers spent much of this year’s legislative session considering six separate proposals for new gaming facilities ranging from high-stakes beano parlors to tribal-operated facilities in Washington County. Those deliberations came after a task force of lawmakers in 2013 failed to agree on how to expand casino gambling in Maine. That failure resulted in the commissioning of the WhiteSand study that was discussed Wednesday.

The six bills bounced between the House and Senate as various lawmakers, the most visible of whom was Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, scrambled to find support for the bills or for the creation of a statewide gaming policy. After an emotionally charged, days-long legislative debate in late March, all six bills died in the Senate.

Valentino said Wednesday that the WhiteSand study includes numerous provisions for which she and others have been advocating for years, most notably a bidding process in which potential casino operators would compete for state casino licenses by increasing their license fee offers.

The WhiteSand study recommends that this bidding begin at $5 million and that it’s likely that bids could reach the tens of millions of dollars. The base fee for a casino license in Maine is $225,000 plus costs associated with the number of slot machines and table games in operation. There also is a yearly license renewal fee of $80,000.

“I’m so happy with this report,” said Valentino. “I feel completely vindicated. This will lead to major benefits for the people of the state of Maine.”

WhiteSand recommended that casino developers invest a minimum of $250 million in a new facility, which the report argues would force new casinos to be large enough to generate higher tax revenues and more jobs.

Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, a member of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, said she was doubtful about the quality and value of the report until she saw it.

“This is one of the most credible, respectable reports I’ve seen given to the committee and there are a lot of nuggets in there that will help build a foundation for a comprehensive and consistent statewide gaming policy,” said Russell. “Whether you like gaming or not, it’s here in the state, and it should be done consistently, rationally, and it certainly should be done in the best way possible for the people of the state of Maine.”

Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, a Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee member who disagreed with Valentino on the gaming issue earlier this year, said the study could be a springboard toward finally solving a years-old problem, though its delivery in an election year creates some uncertainty about how the debate might proceed when the next Legislature is seated in January.

“I think this is the beginning of a measured conversation around gaming that we’ve been meaning to have for over a decade,” he said. Asked what the study might mean for tribal-operated casinos in Maine, Mason said it was a reality check.

“I think it tells them that what they were asking for in the 126th Legislature was too much,” he said. “It presents a lot of opportunities and puts away a lot of the not-quite-possible ideas.”

R. Clayton Cleaves, chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s Pleasant Point Community, said he was pleased that the study provides an opening for his tribe to continue its quest to operate a casino, which he said would provide much-needed jobs in a community that has a 67 percent unemployment rate. However, he said he wished the study included consideration of the fact that his tribe was the first organization to propose a casino in Maine nearly two decades ago — and it still doesn’t have one.

“The ending story is that the tribe will have another opportunity to submit a bill to operate a casino,” said Cleaves. “It’s been a long and exhausting battle, but we’re not going to give up. We will get a casino eventually.”