AUGUSTA — The Maine House of Representatives voted Wednesday against sending a citizen initiative to establish a casino in Oxford County straight to the ballot.
The move, which overturned an earlier committee vote, allows lawmakers to propose alternatives to the original measure.
“Because of (the committee vote), today’s vote somewhat surprised me,” said Peter Martin, spokesman for Black Bear Entertainment, the coalition of investors that collected signatures for the initiative.
“I don’t know where this is going to end up,” Martin said. “We’re cautious right now.”
After the full House voted 69-81 against sending the measure as originally written to voters, the issue was set aside. The House must take further votes before the legislation moves to the Senate.
Supporters of sending only the Oxford County casino proposal to voters said the Legislature should respect the wishes of the more than 100,000 Mainers who signed the petition collected by Black Bear Entertainment. Opponents said many groups, particularly Maine’s native tribes, have been slighted by the state when it comes to gambling measures and that a three-casino alternative would help level the playing field.
Citizen initiatives come to the Legislature for approval. If a majority of lawmakers oppose the initiative, it is placed on a ballot to be voted on by all state voters. But if the Legislature would like to change the bill in any way, it becomes a “competing measure” that goes before the people as part of a three-part question, which allows voters to support the original proposal, to support the Legislature’s proposal or to defeat both.
Wednesday’s vote did not split along partisan or regional lines. The majority of lawmakers were in agreement that they would like to offer Maine voters an option besides the Oxford County initiative, but they were not united behind what that alternative should be.
Some would like Mainers to vote on the proposal negotiated by Black Bear Entertainment and other groups with gaming interests in the state, which had been rebuffed by a majority of lawmakers on the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee.
That measure would have allowed casinos to be built in Oxford, Penobscot and Washington counties. Black Bear Entertainment would have had rights to the casino in Oxford; Penn National Gaming, which runs Hollywood Slots in Bangor, would be allowed to add table games to its facility; and the Passamaquoddy Tribe would have had rights to build a casino in Washington County. The proposal was supported by a minority of lawmakers on the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee.
Still others would like to take the opportunity to draft a more comprehensive, long-term casino policy for the state.
“It’s important for us to be looking at something more comprehensive at this point,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, who voted against sending the initiative to voters on its own.
“As a state, we need to think strategically at this point in time about what’s going to happen with gambling in this state,” Rotundo said. “It seems like the time is now, with a variety of proposals being discussed at this point in time.”
Other plans for proposals, which could be offered as House amendments, included aligning Penn National with one or more of Maine’s Indian tribes as a competing measure against the Oxford County proposal.
State Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, who voted to send the Oxford initiative straight to voters, said he did so even though he was supportive of the negotiated three-casino option.
“I was prepared to support the minority report, which was kind of a brokered arrangement to try to elicit support from the greater Penobscot County region, as well as the Washington County reservation folks, and I was convinced at the end that that probably was an open door invitation for amendments to wreak havoc on the intent and create a competing measure that would be totally destructive,” he said. “So I went with the majority report to get it out to the voters as a clean question up or down.”
Martin of Black Bear Entertainment said he was concerned about the idea of lawmakers using the citizen initiative to adopt broader gambling policy at the end of the legislative session.
“State lawmakers have the ability to use a competing measure,” Martin said. “It shouldn’t be used to advance policy in the way that they may doing it now. It’s usually used to put out a measure if they believe that the initiative was not in the best interest of the public of Maine. I don’t believe that’s the case here. So if there’s a competing measure that comes out that doesn’t resemble the (minority report) out of this, I would have some real issues with that.”
It’s unlikely the House will take up the measure again before next week.
How local legislators in the House voted on casino initiative in initial balloting.
The vote was on acceptance of the ought-not-to-pass committee report. If passed, this would have allowed Mainers to vote up or down on the Oxford County casino proposal in a statewide referendum. It was defeated, with members voting 69-81. Lawmakers now have the option of putting forth an alternative casino proposal that could be on the statewide ballot in addition to the original Oxford County casino proposal, which was a citizen initiative.
Yes: Send Oxford County casino initiative straight to voters.
Sheryl Briggs, D-Mexico
Mike Carey, D-Lewiston
Stacy Dostie, D-Sabattus
Terry Hayes, D-Buckfield
Dick Wagner, D-Lewiston
Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon
James Hamper, R-Oxford
Gary Knight, R-Livermore Falls
Sawin Millett, R-Waterford
No: Send Oxford County casino initiative to voters along with alternative proposal.
Brian Bolduc, D-Auburn
Paul Gilbert, D-Jay
Mike Lajoie, D-Lewiston
Matt Peterson, D-Rumford
Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston
Larry Sirois, D-Turner
Nancy Smith, D-Monmouth
David Van Wie, D-New Gloucester
Susan Austin, R-Gray
Michael Beaulieu, R-Auburn
Bruce Bickford, R-Auburn
Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel
Lance Harvell, R-Farmington
John Robinson, R-Raymond
Tom Saviello, R-Wilton