Casino development in Maine, now steered largely by the citizen initiative process, should be under the control of the Legislature, the sponsor of a bill setting forth a competitive bidding process told lawmakers Wednesday.
"I feel we're missed the boat in getting out ahead on gambling issues," Rep. Linda Valentino told the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. "But it's not too late."
The Saco Democrat, who serves on the committee, is pushing a bill to authorize three casinos in the state subject to a competitive bidding process. A winning bidder would have to pay a "privilege" fee of $5 million to operate a casino for up to 20 years. A slot facility would pay $3 million.
Valentino's bill was shaped by the committee last session as a competing question on the ballot to the referendum proposal to allow a casino in Oxford County. The competing question never went on the ballot and voters authorized Black Bear Entertainment's $165 million western Maine casino plan.
"This is the bill that the state of Maine should have had years ago," Valentino told the committee. "Instead of addressing this issue, we have had one citizen initiative after another."
Valentino said her bill was modeled after a Kansas law. Massachusetts, which does not have casinos or racinos, is debating a plan to introduce a competitive bidding process for up to three casinos. There are no major casino issues in play in either New Hampshire or Vermont.
The Maine bill comes as one initiated bill proposes racinos -- combination harness racing tracks and slot facilities -- in Biddeford in southern Maine and eastern Maine's Washington County. A separate initiated bill would allow a casino in Lewiston.
If the Legislature doesn't pass the bills, they'll go to voters in a referendum next November. With so much uncertainty in the future of casino gambling in Maine, it would be unwise to go ahead with Valentino's bill, Black Bear Entertainment's Peter Martin told the committee.
Also opposing Valentino's bill was Penn National Gaming, owner of Hollywood Slots in Bangor, which questions whether the state should change its rules for gambling after it's made a significant investment in its Maine racino.
The Veterans and Legal Affairs panel took up several gambling-related bills Wednesday, including one that would allow Hollywood Slots to run a casino that includes table games.
Another proposal would redirect some of the gambling revenue from the planned Oxford casino to an expansion of passenger rail service from "points within the state" to Oxford. Supporters say it could mean service from Portland to the casino and the ski area near Bethe, Sunday River.
There was no final vote on the bills, which face further committee review.