Wednesday, February 25, 2004

New racino proposal under investigation

Published in the Current and the American Journal

A member of the legislative committee that came up with a new racino law last week claims his fellow board members shut the public out of negotiations on the plan.

Rep. Kevin Glynn, R-South Portland, has accused legislators of hashing out the proposal in a locked-door meeting.

The proposal would allow Scarborough Downs to seek a new home in two years, according to Glynn, who filed a complaint alleging the meeting was “inappropriate if not illegal,” because it violated the state’s public-access law.

House Speaker Pat Colwell, D-Gardiner, said he takes Glynn’s allegations “very seriously,” and has begun an investigation, which will include interviews with every member of the committee. “This was a bipartisan mistake,” Colwell said. “There’s nothing more important than public access to public meetings.”

The proposal combines the referendum approved by voters in November with a request from Gov. John Baldacci to increase regulation of racinos, and a new proposal from the harness-racing industry.

Committee documents indicate it would give more money to the state of Maine for “administrative and enforcement costs,” give a percentage of the take to a host community – in addition to any independent arrangement a track might make – and give some of the slot revenue to the state’s two largest Indian tribes.

It would also maintain or increase the percentage of the take approved by voters to support harness racing, prescriptions for seniors and college scholarships; share some of the money between the state’s two harness tracks, even if only one had slot machines; and give part of the take to off-track betting parlors.

New shares of the profits
The bulk of the proposal came from the committee’s two chairmen, Sen. Ken Gagnon, D-Waterville, and Rep. Joseph Clark, D-Millinocket. Gagnon told committee members that officials from Penn National Gaming had approved the allocations, which would give the company 58 percent of the racino take.

If a single racino operates in Bangor, the company’s take is estimated to be worth $15 million in the first year and as much as $48 million by 2006.

Penn National owns the Bangor Raceway and holds a harness-racing license for that track. Penn National also has an exclusive deal with Scarborough Downs to develop a Southern Maine racino.

Glynn, who demanded that committee members end their session in Gagnon and Clark’s locked office, and hold their discussion in the public committee meeting room, thinks the deal would be different if it had been arranged in public.

“I would not believe that the end result could be the same,” he said. “I am hoping that the decisions that were made will be nullified” because of the alleged violation of the state’s right-to-know law.

“Basically, the committee is behaving badly,” Glynn said. “We’ve shut the public out of the process.”

Gagnon and Clark could not be reached for comment on the matter.

After the committee returned to the public committee room, Glynn and others suggested several changes to the proposal. Glynn has repeatedly asked his fellow committee members to prevent Scarborough Downs from seeking a new home, and wants any change to the racino law to go back to voters in a combination question that would also allow Mainers to repeal the law entirely.

Glynn’s changes and others were rejected, though some minor changes in allocations of racino proceeds were made.

“If it wasn’t agreed to in the closed-door meeting, they weren’t going to do it,” Glynn said. He said his complaint was not a result of the rejections of his ideas.

Money talks
In the complaint, addressed to Colwell and Senate President Beverly Daggett, D-Augusta, Glynn said he did not entirely blame the committee leaders and members.

“The (committee) has been under attack by extreme lobby techniques of Governor Baldacci’s office through his staff, paid lobbyists who outnumber the members of the committee and just about every other special interest group within the Statehouse,” Glynn wrote.

“There is so much money on the table” that the committee hearings have turned into “a feeding frenzy,” Glynn said later. Gagnon had at one point suggested a portion of the racino proceeds go to the state’s dairy farmers. That proposal failed.

The Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe had also failed their request that the committee allow them to bid for the racino contract at Bangor Raceway. They would get 1 percent of the racino take under the newest proposal, to compensate the Penobscots for expected losses in their high-stakes bingo operation, Glynn said.

The Passamaquoddies are also cut in, because committee members thought it would be unfair to give money to one and not the other, said Glynn, who opposes any cut for the Indians. The proposal does not give any money to the state’s two smaller tribes, the Houlton Band of Maliseets and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs.

“All this was supposed to do was regulate the slots,” Glynn said. “They’re taking so much heat from so many people that they had to go off into a locked room and cut a deal,” he said. “Now we feel like what the politicians in Washington must feel like.”

Colwell agreed that the committee is under lots of pressure. “The lobbyists have been so thick up there that it’s difficult for the members of the committee to feel comfortable,” he said. “I think there’s more Gucci shoes up there than you would find on Rodeo Drive.”

Rep. Gary Moore, R-Standish, was in the meeting that Glynn complained about. He said there was “a convergence of people” in the office shared by Gagnon and Clark.

“There certainly was no formal meeting,” he said. “I would doubt whether at any one time there actually was a quorum there.”

He said he is still interested in allowing the Downs to look for a new hometown that would allow slot machines, and said he is still finding support for that position among his fellow committee members.

“Nothing has been voted in; nothing has been voted out,” he said.