Our View: Horse track shouldn’t get special favors

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Maine missed its opportunity a decade ago to take a rational approach to casino gambling.

We could have done as Massachusetts has done: authorize three casinos and decide upon general locations that best served the state.

That logically would have meant casinos in northern, central and southern Maine.

Instead, we took a hands-off, piecemeal approach that allowed the casino investors to largely call the shots so long as they obtained statewide and local community approval for their plans.

Two did, and we now have successful casinos in Bangor and Oxford, Hollywood Slots and Oxford Casino.

Having failed twice to obtain permission from local voters, Scarborough Downs is now seeking a more direct path to gambling through the state Legislature.

The Downs’ proposed legislation would instantly remove its two biggest barriers to development.

First, it would dispense with statewide approval for the project. Downs’ management believes that approval is too difficult to obtain, given the willingness of the two existing casinos to spend heavily to defeat new casinos during the referendum process.

A resort casino, combined with a new harness racing venue, all located closer to the state’s southern population base, must be the Oxford casino’s worst nightmare. That would result in a crippling loss of revenue and value.

In its pitch to voters, Oxford’s local backers had promised to build a resort and hotel along with their casino. Despite making millions in revenue and twice expanding its gambling floor, owner Churchill Downs has shown no inclination to complete the promised resort.

Secondly, Scarborough Downs is also asking the Legislature to lift the current ban on new casino construction within 100 miles of an existing casino, which was put in law to keep casinos from cannibalizing each other’s revenues.

This is a rule voters themselves approved as part of the referendum process.

With Oxford in southern Maine and Hollywood slots covering mid-Maine, the rule functionally prohibits another casino anywhere south of Houlton.

Which may present a solution to a longstanding issue — the creation of a tribal casino. The Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians are also seeking legislative approval for a casino, as are the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

So, despite not having a coherent plan from the start, Maine now has the potential to end up with a seemingly workable, logical plan: three evenly spaced casinos serving their own areas of the state.

There is, we feel, a widespread feeling in Maine that the tribes deserve a casino of their own, if only because gambling is so closely associated with Indian tribes elsewhere in the country.

Presented as the last piece of the statewide puzzle, and as an economic-development godsend in an economically hard-pressed part of the state, Maine voters would very likely approve a casino in the north.

It would be unfair to the two existing casinos and their home communities to now bend the established casino siting rules just to suit one business, Scarborough Downs.

And it’s not as if the Downs doesn’t already benefit from casino gambling. In 2013, the two existing casinos provided more than $8.4 million to boost harness racing at the state’s two tracks.

Despite this help, both Scarborough Downs and Bangor Historic Track have had fewer bets placed in 2013 than in 2012, and fewer in 2012 than in 2011.

Gov. Paul LePage has said he favors leaving the approval of casinos in the hands of voters, and he’s right.

The Legislature should leave the current law — with the 100-mile ban and referendum rules — alone.

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The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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