Tribes may move forward with competing casino proposal

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AUGUSTA — There is a possibility that one or more of Maine’s Indian tribes will lobby the Maine Legislature to draft an Indian-run casino measure to compete with a citizen’s initiated proposal for one in Oxford County.

Penobscot Indian Nation Chief Kirk Francis recently told Indian Country Today, a New York state-based publication focusing on American Indian issues, that the Wabanaki nations will place a competing measure on the ballot to vie for Mainers’ votes.

Earlier this year, the group Black Bear Entertainment gathered and turned in to the Maine Secretary of State’s Office a sufficient number of signatures for a citizen’s initiative that would establish a casino in Oxford County. The Legislature can either enact the measure as written or reject it, which triggers a statewide vote on the proposal.

The deadline for turning in signatures for 2010 citizen’s initiatives was Feb. 1, so the only way for Maine’s tribes to get a rival casino proposal on the ballot alongside the Oxford County proposal would be for the Legislature to approve one.

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According to the Secretary of State’s Office, if lawmakers enacted what’s considered a “competing measure,” the statewide ballot would give Maine voters three choices — support the citizen’s initiative as written; support the legislatively approved alternative; or oppose both. An option would need to garner a 50 percent majority plus at least one vote to be enacted. Otherwise, any choice receiving at least a third of the vote would be placed on the next statewide ballot.

Peter Martin of Black Bear Entertainment said their initiative includes passing 4 percent of casino revenue to the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes. But he said it’s not right for them to pursue a tribal casino by piggy-backing on the work his group has done.

“The Maine Constitution allows any individual or group or tribe the ability to go out and collect signatures and get something on the ballot. I have no issue if the Passamaquoddies or anyone else goes about it the way we’ve done,” Martin said. He added that according to the state Constitution, the Legislature is only supposed to draft a competing measure if they don’t believe the initiative is in the best interest of the citizens.

“It’s not to be used as a tool by any group to take a shortcut through the process; we do take issue if it is being proposed in that manner,” Martin said.

State Rep. Pam Trinward, D-Waterville, the House chairwoman of the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, said Penobscot Nation legislative Rep. Wayne Mitchell had recently approached her and they had talked “generally” about the process involved with introducing a competing measure.

“We talked briefly about the process and what would be involved,” she said on Monday. “But I haven’t seen any written proposal, and no one on my committee has approached me about it.”

Trinward’s committee has jurisdiction over gambling legislation and will conduct a yet-to-be-scheduled public hearing for the Oxford County casino proposal.

According to a report in Indian Country Today, “the details of the ballot question are being worked out by Donald Soctomah and Wayne Mitchell, the Passamaquoddy and Penobscots’ representatives in the Legislature.”

But on Monday, Mitchell of Indian Island told the Sun Journal that he was not working on any details, and he directed questions about the story to Francis. Soctomah did not return a call for comment.

A secretary said Chief Francis was out of the office on Monday, and he did not return Sun Journal requests for comment. During his interview with Indian Country Today, Francis highlighted longstanding tribal frustrations.

“The problem is the tribes for 17 or 18 years have been trying to initiate gaming under federal legislation. So when you have this almost 20-year initiative going, it’s hard to swallow and watch others get a more beneficial look at their project when ours should have been addressed first,” he said, according to Indian Country Today.

No one from either the House Majority Office or the Senate President’s Office had been approached about drafting a competing measure that would allow for Mainers to weigh in on an Indian-run casino proposal.

It’s also unclear how much support there would be for the rumored and as yet undrafted measure, though it would need a two-thirds majority vote by lawmakers to make the ballot alongside the Oxford County casino measure, which will likely be in November.

Maine Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat who has consistently opposed the expansion of gambling in Maine, said on Monday he’s still personally opposed to establishing casinos in the state but looks to the citizens of Maine to be the final arbiters.

A top Baldacci aide said the governor would want to discuss any gaming or casino proposal involving the tribes with them.

“We haven’t seen a proposal for them or talked to them about this,” said David Farmer, Baldacci’s deputy chief of staff. He added that just last week, Baldacci met with tribal leaders and endorsed a resolve to improve communications.

“We are working very hard to improve our relationships with the tribes,” Baldacci said on Monday. “We need to think long and hard about all proposals that come forward.”

rmetzler@sunjournal.com

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