AUGUSTA (AP) – Maine voters may be surprised to find more than one gambling question on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Most of the attention so far has been on Question 3, the Indians’ proposal to build a $650 million resort-casino in southern Maine. But Question 2 also involves slot machines, Nevada interests and promises of big cash payoffs to the state.

Question 2 seeks voter authorization to allow slot machines at Maine’s commercial horse racing tracks with certain conditions. The only commercial tracks are Bangor Raceway and Scarborough Downs.

Supporters say the very survival of Maine’s harness racing industry is at stake with Question 2, while opponents say the social costs of allowing slot machines will far outweigh the benefits.

“It’s about harness racing and not just gambling,” said Kathryn Rolston of Scarborough Downs. “It’s family and farms and tradition that goes back 150 years.”

But the Christian Civic League’s Michael Heath condemns slot machines as “the crack cocaine of gambling.”

“Maine can do better by its farmers and horsemen than legalizing slot machines,” said Heath, the league’s executive director.

The question on the ballot asks, “Do you want to allow slot machines at certain commercial horse racing tracks if part of the proceeds are used to lower prescription drug costs for the elderly and disabled, and for scholarships to the state universities and technical colleges?”

Bettors would have to be at least 21, and 25 percent of the gross proceeds would have to be turned over to the state and be divided among several state services and racing and farm-bolstering programs.

In Bangor, proponents look toward creating a “racino” entertainment complex combining harness racing with casino-style gaming at the city’s Bass Park. Bangor voters approved the idea last June, leaving the final say to the state’s voters.

Backers of the plan, including Bangor Raceway owner Shawn Scott and his Nevada-based Capital Seven LLC, say it represents an economic jolt for both the city and Maine’s beleaguered harness racing industry. Investors want to put $30 million in improvements to Bass Park and build a hotel and casino with as many as 1,500 slot machines.

“It’s a rare opportunity for job preservation as well as job creation,” said Fred Nichols, Bangor Raceway’s chief executive officer.

But the Bangor racino site could shift across the Penobscot River to Brewer if voters there decide on Election Day to allow a horse track with slot machines in their city.

A study done for Bangor racino backers rings up total local sales revenue from the project at $95 million. It also found that having racino would create more than 300 onsite jobs, with a projected payroll of $5.3 million, in addition to more than 500 jobs for construction and renovations that would take place through 2006.

Three years after Mainers rejected a similar referendum proposal, the harness racing industry still sees its survival in peril. The industry has a $50 million impact on the state’s economy, said Rolston, advertising manager at Scarborough Downs, which envisions having 600 to 800 slot machines in its grandstands if the referendum passes.

Taking into account the jobs of breeders, veterinarians, hay and grain suppliers, tack shop operators and a wide range of other services, collapse of the industry could mean a loss of 2,000 jobs, said Nichols.

The danger would become even more imminent if Maine rejected racino and surrounding states like Massachusetts and New Hampshire decide to allow it.

That would pull the best horses and the sport’s supporters out of state, leaving Maine tracks “like a movie theater with no movie,” as Nichols put it.

The power of video gambling, or slots, to bring in more fans and spark new interest in harness racing is real, said Rolston. Delaware’s industry was in serious decline when gaming machines were allowed in 1996. Besides stimulating fan support, it increased purses to keep the sport vibrant in that state, she said.

Video gambling advocates distance their proposal from the Indian casino proposition.

“This is not a project of frightening scope,” Nichols said, adding that the beneficiaries are more readily identifiable. “This is a little more mom and apple pie.”

But the civic league’s Heath links the two proposals, saying they both involve slot machines that can be played 24-7. He says passage will create a scenario in which “you effectively end up with a casino with a race track out back.”

An expansion of gambling brings more addiction, drains families’ incomes, increases crime and plays into a host of other social consequences including suicide, Heath said.

Heath, who campaigned against slots across the state and launched a Web site to urge no votes, said he wishes more voters would examine the moral implications of gambling before they cast their ballots.



On the Net:

Secretary of State, proposed legislation: http://www.state.me.us/sos/cec/elec/pets02/legslot.htm

AP-ES-10-09-03 1206EDT



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