Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Call for more gambling regulation

Published in the Current and the American Journal

Local lawmakers agree with Gov. John Baldacci that racinos in Maine need more regulation than provided by the law voters passed Nov. 4.

Baldacci has proposed revisions to the racino law that he says will ensure the gambling enterprises are “tightly controlled to avoid the negative influences of this industry.”

When it reconvenes in January, the Legislature will take up his proposal, which includes setting up a statewide “gambling control board” with power to license gambling operators.

Lawmakers are particularly concerned about regulating gambling to avoid corruption and making sure the state gets a financial benefit. Any solution would require approval by a two-thirds majority in each house.

Sen. Lynn Bromley, D-South Portland and Cape Elizabeth, said state officials told her that proper enforcement of racino rules would cost the state $17 million a year. She wants the enforcement money to come from the slot revenues, which is part of Baldacci’s plan.

Rep. Harold Clough, R-Scarborough and Gorham, hadn’t seen the governor’s proposal to comment on it specifically. “My hopes are we don’t have the gambling. It’s obvious that if we do, we need more regulation,” he said. In particular, he would like to “see that more money stays in Maine.”

Rep. Robert Duplessie, D-Westbrook, said the governor’s plan also addresses other problems with the law. “What was passed actually was written by one corporation,” he said.

The referendum law does not limit the number of slot machines that could be installed, prevents suspension of a racino license in the case of alleged wrongdoing and does not require a minimum “payback,” the amount a machine returns to players.

The governor’s proposal addresses these and other problems Duplessie sees with the law, including requiring what is called “on-line polling,” which allows remote supervision of the machine’s bets and payouts.

“My initial reaction is positive,” Duplessie said. “It’s definitely the right direction.” He expects the proposal to have legislative support, and said party leaders have signed on.

Baldacci and other legislators last week sent a letter to various groups involved in the racino proposals, including Penn National and Capital Seven, the two companies most involved in planning racinos in Southern Maine and Bangor, respectively.

The letter notified the companies that state officials were working on changing gaming regulations and planned to make those changes retroactive.

Duplessie expects the proposal to get the “fast track,” with hearings perhaps in mid-January. “By mid-February, we’ll have a new law,” he said.

Rep. Ron Usher, D-Westbrook, agrees, though he’s not sure how Westbrook’s vote will go. “I expect a low turnout,” said Usher, who is voting in advance, by absentee ballot. He thinks people will be on vacation or perhaps put off by bad weather, and won’t show up to the polls Dec. 30.

Usher is so supportive of a statewide gambling commission that he asked the governor’s office if he could nominate someone from Westbrook to be on the new board. “Now I’m trying to think of somebody,” he said.

Sen. Carolyn Gilman, R-Westbrook and Gorham, also wants to see regulation increased if racinos come to the state. “I’d like to see them out of Maine completely,” she said. “Sooner or later, it’s going to cost the taxpayers money.”

But, she said, if racinos are coming, she wants another statewide referendum on the issue. She has heard from voters who, she said, “want another crack at it. They feel they misunderstood what was being asked of them.” People voted for racinos “with the idea that a few slots were going to help harness racing” and not knowing what was actually being planned.

Sen. Peggy Pendleton, D-Scarborough and Saco, hadn’t seen the governor’s specific plan, but said the racino proposal “snuck in the back door” while the casino issue was distracting voters.

“I was picturing like 100 slot machines in the lobby,” she said. She wants more regulation and possibly another referendum to make sure voters are comfortable with the changes.

She wants more money for the state and for the town the racino is in. “They need to get a good cut too,” said Pendleton.

While legislators agree more needs to be done, Bromley points to a possible sticking point: “People are loath to change something that’s the people’s voice.”

Yet she admits to a certain degree of confusion about the referendum results. “I don’t think I know what the electorate really meant,” she said. They might have wanted slot machines, or to save harness racing or cheaper medicine for the elderly.

She also said a racino in Southern Maine – not just one in Bangor – is necessary if the harness racing industry is to survive.

Further, if the state is to get any projected money from the racinos, it needs the numbers of people who might come to a racino in Southern Maine, Bromley said.

She would be willing to extend the deadline for Scarborough Downs to find a host community and expand its radius beyond the current five-mile limit, but only if increased regulation was being paid for by the racino revenue.

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