AUGUSTA — The Maine Senate voted to send the citizens initiative to establish a casino in Oxford County to the statewide ballot alone, without an alternate legislative proposal. The vote was 26-8, with one senator absent. Members of the House voted similarly Friday.
The move put an end to the question of whether or not voters would get the opportunity to vote on a hastily-negotiated proposal that would have allowed casinos in Penobscot and Washington counties, in addition to Oxford.
Supporters of the alternative said it would lay to rest regional competition for expanded gambling opportunities, but opponents said there was not enough time to negotiate a fair compromise.
State Sen. David Hastings, R-Fryeburg, said Oxford and Washington counties have similarly high levels of unemployment and both deserve the chance to take advantage of the opportunities a casino would offer.
“Gaming is not my first choice for economic development, but right now it may be the only choice we have in Oxford County and perhaps also in Washington County, which has even, I think, harsher economic circumstances than we do,” he said on the Senate floor. “So if we are going to let this go out to the voters, let’s give the voters a chance to decide if they want to answer this question once and for all and do so in a way that would benefit two distant but similarly situated areas in our state.”
But the majority of senators disagreed.
“The state of Maine’s laws at the present time require that if an area wants to have gambling — casino, racino — they must gather signatures and put it to a vote. Oxford County did that, they put a lot of money into it, they followed the law,” said state Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, the Senate chairwoman of the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee. “We need to be very careful that if someone petitions for one casino, we don’t go out and give three. The people did not ask for that. Those 100,000 people that signed the petition, signed the petition that it was going to be Oxford. I think we need to honor that.”
Sullivan said if the committee had more time to work, they could have perhaps drafted a proposal along the lines that had been discussed.
Due to the Legislature’s action, voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on a statewide ballot this fall whether or not to approve the Oxford County initiative, which proposes building a casino and four season resort in the town of Oxford. In 2008, voters defeated a similar proposal 54 percent to 46 percent.
Peter Martin of Black Bear Entertainment, the coalition of investors that backed the original citizen’s initiative, said he lobbied until the last minute for lawmakers to put forth a three-casino alternative. But he wasn’t surprised by the final outcome.
“We were prepared for that all along; we are going to run a great campaign,” he said after the vote.
Martin said if approved, the Oxford County casino project would create at least 800 full- and part-time jobs, according to official estimates, most of which would be occupied by Mainers.
“Some management jobs have to be imported in, but we want to utilize the work force in greater Oxford County,” he said.
The $184 million resort casino would include a hotel, restaurants and a spa, according to published reports.
Senate vote on Oxford County casino citizens initiative
Yes — to give Mainers the opportunity to vote up or down just the Oxford proposal
Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston
Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds
Sen. Deb Simpson, D-Auburn
No — to give Mainers the opportunity to vote on an alternate proposal in addition to Oxford
Sen. Walter Gooley, R-Farmington
Sen. David Hastings, R-Fryeburg
Sen. Bruce Bryant, D-Dixfield