AUGUSTA — Backers of a 1,500-slot machine facility planned for Lewiston’s former Bates Mill No. 5 are hoping to persuade lawmakers to green-light the project without a statewide referendum.

However, those efforts face opposition from anti-casino groups and Gov. Paul LePage.

Dan Billings, LePage’s legal counsel, told the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Monday that while the governor recognizes the potential economic benefits of casino projects, he also believes voters should continue to decide the merits of gambling proposals.

Billings also indicated that LePage would consider vetoing the citizen-initiated bill if the Legislature passed it without a statewide referendum. 

The bill allows Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment LLC to begin developing the refurbished 345,000-square-foot building on Canal Street.

Like other gambling legislation, LD 985 is written so that the Legislature can approve the project. However, the Legislature has typically pushed the gambling projects to referendum.

Last June, Lewiston residents voted 5,041 to 2,574 in support of selling the Bates Mill property to Great Falls Recreation and Redevelopment LLC for $150,000. The developer has also gathered enough signatures to bring the issue to voters in November.

The developer and city officials are hoping to avoid the referendum. Both argued Monday that the area needed the anticipated economic boost from the project now.

Stavros Mendros, a former state representative and investor in the project, said the casino would create 500 jobs.

Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert told the panel that the casino was part of a major revitalization effort.

“Lewiston is ready and eager for a casino,” Gilbert said.

Peter Robinson, a partner in the project, said the Lewiston casino would be unique to other resort-style gambling projects because it’s downtown, thus allowing nearby restaurants and shops to capture revenues.

But some lawmakers worried that circumventing the referendum would be a major policy departure.

Previous gambling proposals have all gone before voters.

In 2005, the Legislature approved a 1,500-slot machine racino at a tribally owned facility in Washington County. However, support for that project was not enough to override Gov. John Baldacci’s veto.

In November, voters narrowly approved a casino in Oxford County. While some believe that the approval will lead to a proliferation of other gambling projects, others say Mainers may not be so willing to support future proposals.

The latter theory is a concern for the Lewiston developers, who could also compete for voter support with a Biddeford racino project slated for a November vote.

Meanwhile, investors in approved projects are worried about depleted market share.

On Monday, Black Bear Entertainment, the developer of the Oxford proposal, testified against circumventing the referendum on the Lewiston proposal.

The bill is also opposed by several anti-casino groups.

Dennis Bailey of CasinosNo! said gambling projects impact more communities than the ones they’re located in. He said existing casino laws in Maine were like “Swiss cheese” and that allowing other towns to approve their own projects would worsen the problem.

LePage has previously expressed support for allowing local approval of gaming projects. On the campaign trail he told the Sun Journal, “Personally, I don’t think the issue should be decided by a statewide referendum. It should be decided locally. If the people want something, we should give it to them.”

He later told the Maine Public Broadcasting Network that counties should decide gambling projects.

On Monday, the administration said the governor still supports a process where casino projects can be decided locally. However, despite Lewiston voters’ overwhelming approval of the Bates Mill project last June, LePage aides said he doesn’t support the Legislature’s approval of the Lewiston project because residents were likely under the impression that the project would go to referendum.

Billings said LePage was “ambivalent” about casino gambling, a statement that was consistent with the governor’s remarks on the campaign trail.

But the project’s backers and city officials said the decision was within the Legislature’s purview.

“If you vote for this, you are the people,” Mendros told the panel.

Bailey countered that casinos don’t create wealth or economic development. He added that the current bill was arguably unconstitutional because it gives one business the right to operate slot machines, while no other business has that ability.

As written, the bill would also distribute 39 percent of net slot revenues to various areas, such as harness racing, the Fund for a Healthy Maine and the University of Maine scholarship program.

Also included in the so-called “cascade” to other programs is a 1 percent distribution of net revenues to the city of Lewiston.

A work session for LD 985 has not been scheduled.

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