Maine lawmakers face a conundrum of their own making. And the only real way out is to trust the voters.
A well-financed – and extremely troubling – campaign to build a new casino in southern Maine has collected enough signatures to force a ballot initiative this fall.
The Legislature knows it – Democrats and Republicans alike.
Now, they are considering their options and none of them are particularly good.
When a campaign collects enough signatures to place a question on the ballot, the measure is presented to the Legislature, which then has three options.
Lawmakers can enact the bill exactly as written, they can send it to voters or they can pass a competing measure, which then appears along side the original question on the ballot.
There are huge amounts of money at stake. Hundreds of millions of dollars.
And lawmakers are rightfully concerned about the kind of misleading and scurrilous campaign voters could face around the casino. In the past, organizations like CasinosNO! effectively held back the tide of gambling expansion. But opponents of legalized gambling have largely lost their argument.
With two casinos already in the state – one in Bangor and one in Oxford County – it seems more likely that organized opposition would come from the existing casinos, motivated by keeping the market on slots and table games more limited.
Faced with this dynamic, many legislators are reluctant to put the casino question into the hands of voters. As lawmakers have shown time and again this year with their efforts to undermine citizens’ initiative, they don’t necessarily trust the decisions that come from direct democracy.
Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, a Republican, and Rep. Louis Luchini, a Democrat, are so concerned about the initiative and the deceptive way that it was placed on the ballot, they are floating a controversial plan to circumvent the initiative process.
As reported by the Bangor Daily News, the two are talking about enacting the deeply problematic legislation as written by proponents and then moving quickly to repeal the brand new law.
The goal would be to deny the casino’s backers their slot on the ballot.
It’s a dangerous and unprecedented gambit. It’s destined to end up in court. And it has the potential to set a precedent in which the Legislature and the governor could conspire in the future to block any referendum, regardless of its content.
The potential for mischief is too great.
Secretary of State Matt Dunlap described to the Portland Press Herald how the scheme might be perceived by a court, “That’s a little bit too cute by half.”
That’s putting it mildly. I really do sympathize with the struggle lawmakers are dealing with. They should examine all the options. It’s just that this one is pretty bad.
During my time in the governor’s office, the Baldacci administration strongly opposed the expansion of gambling in the state, vetoing legislation to allow the industry’s growth.
After several attempts, voters passed initiatives to allowing gambling first in Bangor and then in Oxford County.
Gambling laws have been written piecemeal and have not taken a thoughtful approach to the regulation of gaming or how the proceeds should be used in the best interest of residents of the state.
As much as it might pain me to say, Hollywood Casino has had a positive economic impact on Bangor and has sparked a revitalization of the riverfront, including the construction of the Cross Insurance Center.
Gambling is in Maine, and I cannot foresee a future in which the industry doesn’t continue. And, because there’s big money at stake, I don’t think the sketchy ballot campaign we’re seeing now will be the last.
Instead of trying to further undermine the initiative process with a Hail Mary plan that might be tossed aside by the courts, the Legislature should instead adopt a comprehensive gambling reform bill as a competing measure.
The bill could end some of the deeply flawed ways casino dollars are spent and put in place reasonable, data-based criteria for any future expansion, including stricter regulation on who can be involved in any facet of the gambling industry or its expansion. The backers of the current casino question don’t deserve a place at the table.
It’s difficult to predict how voters will react to competing proposals on the ballot – that’s why we have elections after all.
They could become confused by the competing measures or frustrated. And a live campaign gives the tricksters who placed the question on the ballot a shot to win that they probably don’t deserved.
The other alternative: Put the question out there as written. Both require opponents to run a real campaign.
The only way forward is to trust the voters to make the right decision, to engage with them early and have a substantive conversation about the casino proposal and its backers, and to fight hard against a truly bad idea.
It’s no sure thing, but it’s a dangerous game to undermine Maine’s initiative process.