AUGUSTA – A move to ask voters in November if they want to allow a tribal racino with 1,500 slot machines in Washington County won strong support Monday in the House of Representatives.

Following all-but-final approval in the House, the measure was sent to the Senate, where it could come up Tuesday evening.

The key House vote was 97-40, more than the two-thirds necessary to protect it from a veto from Gov. John Baldacci, who opposes expanding gambling in Maine.

Last Friday, the House sustained Gov. John Baldacci’s veto of a similar bill from the Passamaquoddy Indian Tribe that would allow slot machines at a harness racing facility in eastern Maine.

In the wake of the veto, racino proponents began pushing for legislative endorsement of a statewide referendum vote on the proposal.

During floor debate Monday, several House members said Washington County and the Native Americans deserve a shot to make their case for slot machines to the voters.

Rep. John Patrick, D-Rumford, defended sending the question to referendum. People in Washington County, including the Calais City Council, horse breeders and horse racers, local chambers of commerce, even the sheriff’s department, all want the racino, Patrick said.

Many Mainers enjoy gambling, he said. “There are hundreds of millions of dollars leaving the state of Maine” going to Las Vegas, Foxwoods, Monhegan Sun. Those Mainers who gamble are not impoverished, he said.

“We’re going to get people from L.L. Bean and ‘CasinosNo’ saying this is a lousy idea. But I’m willing to put my reputation on the line,” Patrick said.

Rep. Deborah Pelletier-Simpson, D-Auburn, said she was a big supporter of the casino referendum which failed, and this racino would not be anywhere near that large scale. She’s visited tribal communities that had gambling, and “I was impressed that with entertainment dollars people were willing to spend they were able to provide jobs and real opportunity.”

Rep. Howard McFadden, D-Dennysville, said a vote against allowing a racino referendum would be a vote against the tribe, a vote against his Washington County, a vote against harness racing.

Rep. Janet Mills, D-Farmington, spoke against a referendum, saying legislators ought not to send a “flawed” question to voters. Before a referendum there needs to be an analysis and legislators “ought to know a lot more” about the proposal. Allowing a referendum now “is passing the buck,” Mills said.

Studies have shown where there are major gambling facilities there are higher rates of suicide, unemployment and substance abuse, problems Washington County already suffers from, Mills said.

Baldacci has emphasized that his opposition to expanded gaming is personal and said any change in current law should be up to the people. He said last week that he would only allow a referendum if approved by the House and Senate by a two-thirds vote. It’s not known whether the Senate will approve the referendum with a two-thirds majority.

As proposed, a Washington County racino would include 1,500 slot machines, a horse track, and possibly a high stakes bingo hall, hotel and other facilities, according to sponsor Rep. Frederick Moore of the Passamaquoddys. The racino would be run by his tribe, with proceeds shared with other Maine tribes, Moore said.

State voters approved a proposal for racinos to be developed at existing harness-racing tracks in 2003. Penn National Gaming Inc. is planning to operate one in Bangor.

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