Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Legislature to debate slots at non-profits

Published in the Current and the American Journal

Local lawmakers who voted in June to allow slot machines at VFW halls, Eagles lodges, and other veterans’ and civic organizations may be changing their minds.

In a June 3 vote on a bill that could come back to the Legislature as early as next week, all of the local Democrats in the Maine House of Representatives, and half of the local Republicans, voted in favor of installing up to five slot machines at veterans’ halls and lodges of nonprofit civic organizations.

The machines would accept a maximum bet of $5 and make maximum payouts of $1,250. Of the money the machines took in, 80 percent would be
returned to bettors, who would have to be over 21 and either members or guests of the organization – not the public.

Of the rest of the money, 75 percent would go to the organization hosting the machine, 2 percent would go to a statewide problem-gambling treatment fund, 2 percent to state regulatory expenses and the rest would be divided between statewide revenue sharing and payments directly to the town hosting the machines.

How they voted
Voting in favor were Janet McLaughlin, D-Cape Elizabeth, Larry Bliss, D-South Portland and Cape Elizabeth, Chris Barstow, D-Gorham, Ron Usher, D-Westbrook, Bob Duplessie, D-Westbrook, Louis Maietta, R-South Portland, Gary Moore, R-Standish, and House Republican Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Windham and Raymond.

Voting against it were Kevin Glynn, R-South Portland, Harold Clough, R-Scarborough and Gorham, Philip Cressey, R-Casco, Naples, and Sebago, and David Tobin, R-Windham. Darlene Curley, R-Scarborough, was not present for the vote.

Now some who voted in the favor of the slots are changing their minds.

“My position right now would be against any expansion of gambling,” said Barstow. Saying he had learned more about the gambling industry and heard more from constituents since June, “it’s best that we try to cut back gambling,” not expand it, he said.

Usher said he didn’t know why he voted to allow slot machines at veterans’ halls and lodges for other civic organizations in June and didn’t know how he would vote if it were included as part of new gambling legislation this session. “I want to get some more details on that,” said Usher.

He did say, however, that he was concerned that with the new smoking ban in bars, bar patrons may already be headed for halls and lodges of civic organizations.

Adding slot machines would be another draw to bring people into those establishments.

“What a change in environment,” said Usher. “Are we getting minicasinos?”

Duplessie said he had not changed his mind and still supports regulating slots at the organizations. With over 1,000 illegal slot machines operating in the state, he said government should regulate them and get a share of the take. “People are going to gamble,” he said.

Bliss said he did not recall the June vote, and would have expected himself to vote against it. (A House roll call shows him supporting it.)

Bliss said he would oppose the issue now. “I don’t think slot machines are the answer,” he said. “Economic development doesn’t come from slot machines.”

Glynn, who voted against it in June and said he would do so again, remembered the June vote and the 90-minute debate on the issue that preceded it. He was surprised that some legislators said they didn’t remember. “Any bill that comes out as a divided bill that we debate, I know how I voted,” Glynn said.

Back before committee
The bill passed the House by a vote of 84-53, and went to the Senate, which did not take a vote.

Instead, the Senate sent it back into a legislative committee to review after the statewide Nov. 4 racino and casino referendum votes.

Now the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over gambling legislation, is sending the proposal back to the House.

The changes could allow slot machines at veterans and non-profit organizations, as well as off-track betting parlors, while simultaneously regulating slot machines at harness racetracks. The changes could also consolidate regulations on high-stakes bingo, beano and the state lottery, according to Rep. Moore, the ranking minority member of the committee.

The request for slot machines came from veterans organizations and other civic groups, Moore said. “Usually, there’s not a lot of agonizing when, for whatever reason, a veterans group comes forward and asks for something.”

The groups pointed out their civic activities and told the committee they needed more money to do more work.

“Basically, they were saying, ‘we’re dying off because of old age, and we need a new revenue stream,’” Moore said.

He supported it in the committee and in the House vote, in part, because “there are a lot of places that it’s already happening.”

Gaming already exists
Maine State Police records indicate that 14 organizations have licenses to operate bingo, beano and other games of chance – including video poker. Most of them are for bingo or beano, though state records don’t differentiate between types of licenses.

Westbrook’s 32 licensed organizations include the Holy Name Society, granges, Knights of Columbus halls, veterans organizations, sports boosters, Little League and the fire department.

Windham’s eight licenses are held by the Rotary Club, three fire companies, the Lake Pine Association, the Lake Region Eagles, Maine Junior Chamber of Commerce and the Msgr. William Cunneen Knights of Columbus.

Scarborough’s 14 licensed organizations include the VIP Bingo hall on Route 1, as well as Bayley’s Camping Resort, the Higgins Beach Association, St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish, the Scarborough Chamber of Commerce and the Scarborough Athletic Boosters.

A license for the Loyal Order of Moose to operate a game of chance called “pull tabs” was approved by the Town Council Nov. 19, but has not yet been sent to the state, according to Moose lodge administrator, Bob Lerman.

The game involves tickets similar to scratch lottery tickets, but instead of scratching to win, you peel back a perforated tab to uncover the results. The Moose would use the roughly $800 it would make for every 4,000 tickets sold to add to their charitable donations, which total about $6,000 a year, Lerman said.

Glynn, who also serves on the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, fears allowing the slot machines will create “little minicasinos of up to five slot machines per establishment.”

He said the state law would prevent towns from increasing regulations after the law passed. Town councils will have to approve the slot licenses the same way they now approve liquor licenses, but organizations will be able to appeal to a state regulator if the town denies a license. That would effectively allow the town’s decision to be overruled.

“A town would have to preemptively block it,” Glynn said. “If towns do nothing and this law passes, they will have slot machines.”