Published in the Current and the American Journal
Scarborough Downs, following referendum defeats in Saco and Westbrook Dec. 30, will now ask the Legislature to remove the time limit to find a community that will accept a racino and for permission to look up to 75 miles away from the track’s existing site.
The Downs will also ask lawmakers to require slot income from the Bangor racino be shared with them, to increase purses at the track, even if they can’t find a home that will allow slots.
Downs owner Sharon Terry said she will hold members of the harness racing industry – including Bangor Historic Track owner Shawn Scott – to a pre-Nov. 4 agreement to seek and support the changes.
In addition to expanding the five-mile radius to 75, which is the closest state law says racetracks can be to one another, Terry will ask for an extension and “possibly a deletion” of the time limit imposed by the Nov. 4 statewide referendum.
“We’re asking for an expansion of our business,” she said. The track needs to “take our time and make sure that we educate” people about racinos.
“They might be able to see the benefits that go along with it,” she said. “It takes a period of time to be able to talk about it logically” and get past negative advertising like what appeared before the Dec. 30 local elections in Westbrook and Saco.
“I still have confidence that we will be able to find” a new home for the track, Terry said. She said she has heard support from legislators, but does not have a new town in mind. “We’re going to have to take a look at an extension” before looking at specific towns.
Terry supports Gov. John Baldacci’s proposed changes to the racino law, including a gambling oversight commission and increased state police control over slot machines and the money that passes through them.
She said harness racing will die if slots are not allowed to expand in Maine. “If we can’t find a city, then we can’t find a city,” she said.
Citing Scott’s authorship and strong backing of the original racino referendum, Terry objected to following “a law put in there by someone who wants a monopoly.”
Local versus ‘from away’
Her complaint strikes a chord with Sen. Karl Turner, R-Windham and Raymond. He doesn’t like seeing a Maine-based business run down by someone “from away.”
“I’m not interested in seeing the expansion of racinos on the one hand. On the other hand,” the racino referendum was written by Shawn Scott and designed to hurt the Downs, he said.
“Scarborough (Downs) should be given some additional opportunity” to make up for it. At the same time, he does not believe towns would welcome a racino. “My guess is you’d be hard-pressed to find a community that would want to take on the problems associated with a racino.”
As a result, he is prepared to support a portion of the Downs’ request: that some revenue from Bangor’s slot machines be sent to the Downs, as well as to the agricultural fairs. Currently racetrack revenue supports Maine’s fairs.
“That makes it less important that we have a second one,” Turner said.
Rep. Harold Clough, R-Scarborough, Gorham, opposes the Downs’ requests, saying the money is the real issue and objecting to sending Mainers’ money to an out-of-state corporation. The slots at Scarborough Downs would be operated by Pennsylvania-based Penn National, which owns racinos and casinos across the country.
Though Mainers favored racinos at the statewide referendum, they know more now, he said. “People have finally learned what this is all about,” he said. And with that information, Scarborough, Westbrook and Saco have all said no.
Clough believes other towns will vote similarly.
“I just don’t see any reason to keep beating a dead horse, so to speak,” he said.
Politically speaking, making laws in the January session of the Legislature is harder than in the fall. Because the session is technically an “emergency” session, two-thirds of the members of each house must vote in favor of a proposal for it to take effect.
Some legislators wondered whether the Downs’ requests might be linked to Baldacci’s, as proponents try to gather enough support to win a vote.
Clough stands firm, saying he would not change the governor’s proposals for regulations to allow the Downs more leeway.
Rep. Chris Barstow, D-Gorham, is also “against any amendments to the proposed law,” except those requested by the governor. He would oppose any bill in which the governor’s changes were linked to the Downs’ requests.
Rep. Gary Moore, R-Standish, will be among the first to handle the requests from both the Downs and Baldacci. He is the ranking minority member of the Legislature’s Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, which oversees gambling.
“I’m very much opposed to tinkering with legislation that the citizens have passed,” he said. “In a sense you’re saying people didn’t know what they were doing.”
Still, he admits he would have to be “stupid not to want a strongly regulated” gambling environment in Maine. (He does question whether all of Baldacci’s proposals are necessary.)
And he believes that if the Downs doesn’t get slots, it will fail and harness racing will “perish.”
A longtime harness racing industry member – his family owned horses “for generations” but does no longer because the industry is not a money-maker anymore – he doesn’t want to see that happen.
“I’m inclined to view (the Downs’) suggestions favorably,” Moore said.
Rep. Ron Usher, D-Westbrook, and Rep. Joseph Bruno, R-Raymond and Windham, were leaning toward letting the Downs have their way, though both wondered if any town would welcome a racino.
Sen. Carolyn Gilman, R-Westbrook, Gorham and Standish, opposes the racino and is working “to get slots out of Maine entirely.”
Janet McLaughlin, D-Cape Elizabeth, opposes the Downs’ requests, saying they have “had their chance” with the statewide referendum and should have
voiced any objections then. If the Downs gets its way, Terry is not saying where she’ll look.
Moore, the Standish Republican, said, “I think that there is a town” that would accept a racino. “I don’t know which one.”
Pointing to Gorham’s tradition of harness racing, he wondered if it might go for the redevelopment of the track on Route 202.
Barstow of Gorham disputed that. “I don’t think Gorham would be a feasible option,” he said. “I think Westbrook and Saco are a good reflection as to how these communities in Southern Maine view this entity."