Legislative panel recommends Lewiston casino go to voters

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AUGUSTA — The fate of a 1,500-slot-machine facility planned for Lewiston’s former Bates Mill No. 5 will likely be in the hands of voters this November.

Despite proponents’ hopes that the downtown project would receive direct approval from the Legislature, the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Friday voted to recommend that the proposal go to a statewide referendum.

The panel’s 10-3 vote means its recommendation will be considered on the floors of the House and Senate. The committee originally voted unanimously to send the proposal to referendum, a result that would have bypassed floor debate. The panel revoted in the afternoon to arrive at the divided result, which means floor debate is possible.

Lawmakers on the committee indicated that their decision was influenced by Maine’s precedent for approving casino projects.

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Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston, acknowledged that the project has the backing of city officials and the community. However, he said, he had to support the process.

He said that while there were issues with the citizen initiative process for casino projects, “we can’t change the rules of the game now.”

Stavros Mendros, a former state representative and investor in the project, said before the vote that he was hopeful the panel would consider breaking with tradition and recommend legislative approval. However, Mendros said his group fully expected to have to go to referendum.

Like other gambling legislation, LD 985 is a citizen initiative and written so that the Legislature could have OK’d the project. However, the Legislature has typically pushed gambling projects to a statewide vote.

Mendros’ group had hoped to entice lawmakers by guaranteeing that the project would go to a county vote. That option didn’t persuade lawmakers or Gov. Paul LePage, whose administration testified last month that voters should decide the merits of the project.

During the public hearing, the governor’s legal counsel indicated LePage would veto the casino proposal if it wasn’t submitted for a statewide vote.

Mendros wasn’t concerned about facing the referendum.

“I think voters will approve it; I really do,” he said.

Lewiston residents voted 5,041 to 2,574 last June in support of selling the Bates Mill property to Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment LLC for $150,000. The developer has gathered enough signatures to bring the issue to voters in November.

The developer and city officials wanted to avoid the referendum. Both argued during a public hearing last month that the area needs the anticipated economic boost from the project.

Mendros says the casino will create 500 jobs.

Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert testified during the public hearing last month that the casino was part of a major revitalization effort.

“Lewiston is ready and eager for a casino,” Gilbert said.

Peter Robinson, a partner in the project, said the Lewiston casino would be unique to other resort-style gambling projects because it’s downtown, thus allowing nearby restaurants and shops to capture revenue.

One provision in the language of the legislation would automatically allow the Lewiston facility, if approved, to add table games such as poker and blackjack, if such gambling were approved elsewhere.

There’s a proposal this session to add table games at Hollywood Slots in Bangor. That bill has the support of LePage.

Previous gambling proposals have all gone before voters.

In 2005, the Legislature approved a 1,500-slot-machine racino at a tribally owned facility in Washington County. However, support for that project was not enough to override Gov. John Baldacci’s veto.

In November, voters narrowly approved a casino in Oxford County.

The Lewiston project could compete for voter support with a Biddeford racino project. That project also appears to be heading to referendum, following the Veterans Committee’s 10-3 recommendation to send it to voters.

Chris O’Neil, a spokesman for Mainers Against A Rotten Deal, an anti-casino group, applauded the panel’s decision.

“Lawmakers did the right thing,” O’Neil said in a statement. “Maine voters have always decided the question of major expansions of gambling, and today those lawmakers stood up for Maine families and protected their right to vote.”

O’Neil said the fight wasn’t over.

“This was a very good day for those opposed to the expansion of casino gambling,” he said, “but I anticipate that the lobbying will now become even more intense. The gambling lobby will pull out all the stops to persuade lawmakers to ignore the committee vote and pass the legislation.”

smistler@sunjournal.com

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