Oxford County casino promoter seeks statewide vote

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AUGUSTA — A spokesman for an investor group hoping to site a casino in Oxford County asked a legislative committee Thursday to vote down the citizen initiative that would allow the resort to be built.

If legislators reject it, the proposal as written would be put to a statewide vote.

Black Bear Entertainment spokesman Peter Martin made his request at a public hearing before the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee.

If lawmakers approve the initiative launched by the Black Bear group, the governor can veto it, as Gov. John Baldacci has promised to do with any legislation that would expand gambling. The measure would need a two-thirds approval vote from lawmakers to override the veto, which it would be unlikely to receive.

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If the committee changes the initiative, the original proposal and the Legislature’s proposal would both appear on a statewide ballot, possibly in November 2010.

Martin said legislators should let the people vote on the original proposal.

“We are prepared to take our message to the people,” he said, adding that investors had spent about $750,000 so far and planned to spend another $1 million on the anticipated campaign.

But as was hinted earlier this month, representatives of the Passamaquoddy Tribe asked the panel to draft a competing measure that would allow a casino in Washington County to be run by the tribe and would allow table gaming to be added to Bangor’s Hollywood Slots, in addition to allowing a casino in Oxford County.

“It’s time for Washington County and the tribes to be treated fairly in this issue of economic development,” said Passamaquoddy tribal Rep. Donald Soctomah.

State Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, asked why the tribe had not conducted its own citizen initiative by collecting signatures, as Black Bear Entertainment did.

Soctomah said it would have “just been a competing measure, anyway.”

Other lawmakers questioned why casinos should only be allowed in Oxford and Washington counties and at Hollywood Slots in Bangor. William Nichols, governor of the Passamaquoddy Tribe’s Indian Township reservation, said that anyone who was standing before the committee and asking for permission could be included.

A representative from Scarborough Downs, who was testifying against the measure, said they would like to have rights to build a casino. State Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, said the Penobscot Nation had tried nearly every legislative session to get slot machines and supposed they should be included, too.

Penobscot tribal Rep. Wayne Mitchell was in and out of the committee room during the public hearing but did not testify.

Mainers rejected a proposal in 2008 to build a casino in Oxford County. They also rejected referendums in 2003 and 2007 that would have authorized tribal casinos.

Supporters of the Black Bear Entertainment measure say it would bring much-needed economic development to Oxford County, where unemployment is higher than the state average.

“First and foremost, it’s all about jobs for me,” said state Sen. David Hastings, R-Fryeburg. “Maybe a casino isn’t my first choice. I would love a high-tech company to come in, but we need to go with the option in front of us. This is the only choice we have and I think we need to pursue it.”

The committee is scheduled to vote next Wednesday on the legislation.

rmetzler@sunjournal.com

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