Thursday, October 25, 2007

Gambling on voters: Downeast Mainers pin their hopes on the turn of the ballots

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Question 1
Do you want to expand gambling in Maine by letting the Passamaquoddy Tribe build and operate a slot-machine parlor, high-stakes beano games, and a harness-racing track in Washington County?
A gambling operation in Calais, right on the Canadian border waaaay Down East, would be farther from Southern Maine than Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun. The Passamaquoddy Tribe wants to build a harness-racing track (which is not a big money-maker) and then use that track as a site for a massive-revenue-generating gambling hall with up to 1500 slot machines.

Supporters — such as the officials and community members in the TV ads pleading with Mainers to salve their poverty-induced misery with cold, hard cash — say it will be a source of economic development in a depressed area of Maine, and that it will provide more money for the state to spend. Opponents say it will prey on residents of an already poor part of the state, and that gambling isn’t a good method of economic development.

But the real dispute is not about this racino. It’s about whether this racino “opens the door” to more gambling in Maine. It may seem like a funny question, given how much gambling there is already.

We have two multi-state lottery games (Megabucks and Powerball), scratch tickets too numerous to count, bingo halls packing in the players, Penobscot Nation-run high-stakes beano games with prizes as high as $25,000, and nonprofit agencies regularly running benefit events consisting almost entirely of casino games. There’s tons of betting on horses — at the two tracks (to which this would add a third) and the four off-track betting parlors (including one owned by the company the state has hired to monitor slots revenue — see “Jackpot,” by Lance Tapley, June 8) — and the annual agricultural fairs. And don’t forget Hollywood Slots in Bangor, which has nearly 500 slots already, and next year will open a parlor with up to 1500 machines.

Question 2
Do you want to spend $55 million to support business development in Maine, including research and product-development grants, and business-expansion loans? (The grants would attract at least $50 million in federal or private matching funds.)
Nearly all ($50 million) of the money in this bond would go to the Maine Technology Institute, which awards grants in key industries where government officials think Maine has a competitive advantage, like marine-related industry and forestry. Grant recipients must find matching funds from other sources, like the feds or their own pockets. The remaining $5 million would go to smaller loan programs to help businesses expand.

Question 3
Do you want to spend $40 million to renovate and expand buildings at Maine Maritime Academy, at community colleges, and at UMaine campuses, and an additional $3.5 million to support renovations and improvements to schools, museums, historic buildings, and libraries?
Renovations and building expansions at the state’s institutions of higher learning are never-ending, and funding them is downright expensive. They are so costly, in fact, that public universities leave them out of their regular annual budgets, preferring instead to borrow money to pay for the work. This bond also adds $1.5 million into the state’s revolving fund for school renovations and expansions, which already has $6 million available. The extra money means more schools can be fixed up or expanded. And the bond includes $2 million to match funds raised for projects to improve museums, libraries, and other cultural buildings.

Question 4
Do you want to give $20 million to the Land for Maine’s Future land-conservation program, plus an additional $7.5 million to improve state parks, plus $1.5 million to improve irrigation systems, and a further $6.5 million to support river-based economic development programs?
The Land for Maine’s Future program has conserved nearly 445,000 acres of key Maine land (scenic spots, wilderness, shorefront, and easements on working farms and forests), at a total cost of $97 million, or an average of $220 an acre. The new money would continue that effort. And in recent years, state bonds have been issued to promote water-quality projects on farms, to fix up state parks, and for water-related economic-development projects — in this case to revive riverfronts in environmentally sensitive ways.

Question 5
Do you favor extending term limits for legislators from 4 to 6 terms?

Maine lawmakers are prohibited from serving more than four consecutive two-year terms in one house of the Legislature before they have to take a break for at least two years (though the “break” can include serving in the other house). Term limits were imposed in 1996 as part of an effort to get “new blood” into the Legislature, and to expunge inward-looking cronyism from the State House. The previous limit, of four terms, was an attempt to strike a balance between longevity-given experience and fresh ideas; this is a proposed revision to that balance.

Radios, beds, and commissioners
Cumberland County questions explained
Question 1
Should the county spend $1.7 million to upgrade radio and data-transmission systems for police, fire, and rescue personnel to use?

It may seem amazing in the 21st century — and seven years after 9/11 highlighted the problems (and deaths) that can result — that firefighters and police officers from different agencies can’t talk to each other on the radio. Sure enough, that’s still true here. This bond would buy radio and computer systems to prevent that, and would also provide systems that local police departments could use — not just the county sheriffs.

Question 2
Should the county spend $1.1 million to build an expanded medical clinic at the Cumberland County Jail?

Each day, roughly 200 inmates at the Cumberland County Jail need some sort of medical care, whether for an illness or injury, or a chronic condition, or even to deliver a baby. The jail’s 900-square-foot infirmary is too small to handle that amount of traffic — especially when inmates are accompanied by guards, or if someone has to spend the night receiving medical care. If there’s no room, inmates who are sick have to return to their cells, or get treatment at a hospital, which is much more expensive than if something can be handled at the jail. The money would build a 3000-square-foot expansion to the infirmary, allowing nearly every inmate with medical needs to be treated without leaving the jail.

Question 3
Should there be seven directly-elected county commissioners, instead of three?
Cumberland County residents are served by a three-person commission with the power to increase our property taxes. Lots of its spending is for services Portlanders don’t use, like sheriff’s deputies on patrol, who rarely work in towns with their own police departments. (Other county services, like the jail and maintaining property records, Portlanders do use.) With three districts, the same person has to represent the needs of Portland, Falmouth, Cumberland, North Yarmouth, and Long Island. (The other districts stretch from Cape Elizabeth to Standish, and from Brunswick to Bridgton.) This would further subdivide the county, letting each commissioner represent a smaller group of people.