Casino details still to be decided

November 14, 2010

Route 26 on Pigeon Hill is the site of the proposed Oxford casino.

Pigeon Hill in Oxford is the site of the proposed Oxford casino. The 100-acre parcel is beside Route 26, right.

When many Mainers stepped into the voting booth on Nov. 2, most supported or opposed the Oxford County casino based on one simple question: Did they want it or not?

But the proposed language behind Question 1 was actually 16 pages long and far more complex than a yes or no question. Further, the laws on those pages that will regulate the casino’s operation — including taxation, security and competition — have yet to be set in stone. The Legislature will weigh in and finalize them in the coming months.

Three measures are already being targeted for possible changes.

— One permits table games, such as blackjack and craps, for the first time in Maine. The state’s only other gambling venue, Hollywood Slots in Bangor, is not allowed to have them.

— A second measure bars competing gambling parlors from being built within 100 miles.

— A third sets up a tax structure different from the one assigned to Hollywood Slots. 

Oxford casino backers want those provisions, and other language in the casino proposal, to stay substantially as is, honoring what they see as “the intent of the people.” But others, including some legislators, say changes must be made.

If a recount doesn’t overturn the casino’s yes vote, the Legislature this winter will decide what to do.

Its job: determine which language stays and which goes on the referendum’s way to becoming law.

Change coming?

In general, casinos are prohibited in Maine.

Various casino proposals have come and gone in recent years, none of them successful until 2003, when voters approved what would ultimately become Penn National Gaming’s Hollywood Slots racino in Bangor. The second successful proposal came last week, when voters narrowly approved what is slated to be a $165 million resort casino in Oxford. 

With an unofficial count of 5,600 votes — about 1 percent of the 559,000 people who voted — separating yes and no, two casino opposition groups have formally requested a recount. It could take up to 30 days and likely won’t begin until after Thanksgiving. 

If the recount is not successful — experts say it will be difficult to overturn 5,600 votes — the Oxford casino plan will go first to the Legislature’s Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee and then to the full Legislature to be turned into law.

“Not just the committee but the whole Legislature will want to make sure it’s implemented along the intent of the voters and that it’s done fairly and that the two casinos within the state of Maine are treated as evenly as possible,” said Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewiston, who has been on the committee for three years.

The new legislative session starts this winter, and with it a new Republican majority. That means current committee assignments may change. But many current members have been there since the beginning of the Oxford casino discussion and know what the committee will face in the coming session. 

“It will be changed. Definitely,” said Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, whose town recently voted for its own gambling facility. Sullivan is House chairwoman of the committee, but will relinquish her chairmanship to a Republican in January.

“The casino (investors) put together a working blueprint to say to the people, ‘We’d like your permission, from the state, to have a casino, and this is what we think it should look like,’ so people could say, ‘OK, they’re going to have … XYZ.’ Then the Legislature will look at it and they will say, ‘We’re not sure that X and Y are right,’” Sullivan said.

“We still will allow the casino,” she said. “We cannot stop it. But we can make the rules and regulations different.”

Black Bear Entertainment, the company seeking to build the Oxford casino, has vowed to fight any substantial changes.

“We’re certainly going to push for defending the integrity of the bill and the intent of the people, which was the written language of the bill,” said Peter Martin, government relations adviser for Black Bear. The only changes he could foresee involved “minor house-cleaning.”

The proposal that went to referendum covered a wide range of details, including licensing, security, the minimum age of players and how far the casino can be from emergency services. Most stipulations are not extremely controversial. But a few have proven to be. 

Allowing table games, for example.

Under the proposal, they would be allowed in Oxford but still not in Bangor.

Some people, including the backers of the Oxford casino, say that’s the will of voters and should stand as is. If Hollywood Slots wants table games, they say, operators ought to ask lawmakers for a change in the laws regulating that facility.

“Black Bear Entertainment should not be held responsible to legislate the needs of another business,” Martin wrote in an e-mail, adding, “Penn National Gaming has had seven years to seek table games in Maine and has not, and should not take issue that we have done something they have had the opportunity to do themselves and can still do under the protection of the Maine Constitution.”

However, others say that’s unfair, and that tables games should be permitted in both of the state’s gambling parlors. They also say that’s the will of the voters.

“I would be very much opposed (to keeping it as is),” Sullivan said. “If we allow table games in Oxford, we must allow table games in Bangor. I’ve heard Oxford say, ‘Well, they need to go through the process we did.’ Well, no they don’t. In my way of thinking, (the Bangor casino) did everything they needed to do at the time for the law. Now, the law has been changed by the people’s vote, and that means Bangor.” 

The Oxford proposal bans the building of any other casino within 100 miles. Martin, with Oxford’s Black Bear Entertainment, said that 100-mile provision is nothing new. They included it in their proposal because a similar provision is already in the law that governs Bangor’s Hollywood Slots. The Oxford casino will be a little more than 100 road miles from Hollywood Slots, under the current plan.

If a new casino wants to open within that 100 miles — in Lewiston or Biddeford, for example — Martin said that new casino could use its own law to exempt itself. 

“Any future laws can override it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. We can have a million-mile provision and it just doesn’t matter.”

But Hollywood Slots supporters would like that changed.

“It prohibits future expansion and future opportunities for jobs and growth in the gaming industry within 100 miles of Oxford,” said Dan Cashman, spokesman for the political action committee Citizens Against the Oxford Casino, a coalition composed of people from Penn National Gaming, the Passamaquoddy tribe, the Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau, and horse racing and agricultural fair groups.

“Now, that (100 miles) stretches all the way down to the southern border of Maine,” Cashman said. “It stretches up to most of western Maine, into the Bangor area, over to mid-coast Maine. It’s a pretty big parcel of land.”

Lawmakers foresee the 100-mile issue coming up for discussion. They also foresee a discussion of the new casino’s tax structure.

Based on the language accompanying the casino plan approved by voters, the Oxford casino’s taxes would be calculated in a wholly different way than they are calculated for Hollywood Slots.

Some say the state would get more money under the Oxford plan. Others say it would get less.

Most agree it would be unfair to tax one casino differently from another. They just don’t agree which tax plan should win.

Taxes are among the items Martin considers “minor house-cleaning.”

“The tax structure that we’re endorsing is universally approved in the entire world, except Maine,” he said. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s go with what the industry standard is.’”

Lawmakers say it will be discussed. 

Everything, they say, will be discussed.

“Everybody’s concerns will be heard,” said Rep. Stacey Allen Fitts, R-Pittsfield, ranking minority member of the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee. “We’ll see what happens in the end.”

The committee is slated to get the Oxford casino proposal sometime after the Legislature convenes in January.

<a href=",2005:cluster=, 14 Nov 2010 04:31:35 GMT 00:00″>Casino details still to be decided

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