Tribal leaders urge passage of gambling bills, new state office

Tribal representatives and advocates urged lawmakers on Wednesday to support a slate of bills that they say will help foster economic development by allowing them to expand their gambling operations to include casinos and by creating an office of tribal relations in state government.

The bills are part of an ongoing effort in recent years to restore the sovereignty of the four federally recognized tribes in Maine. Sweeping efforts to restore that sovereignty have generated bipartisan support in the Legislature, but have been blocked by Gov. Janet Mills, who prefers targeted changes.

The three bills, which include proposals to expand the tribes’ exclusive rights to online sports betting to all forms of internet gambling, to allow them to operate electronic Beano and historical horse racing terminals, and to allow them to open casinos, are opposed by the state’s two licensed casinos, which argue that the tribes should have to following existing rules for opening a casino, including a statewide referendum and a 100-mile buffer from existing casinos.

“This is a huge expansion,” Dan Walker, an attorney representing Oxford Casino, said in response to opening the door to tribal casinos. “You combine it with what else we’ve been hearing, (and) what’s being brought forward to this committee this session is the biggest expansion of gaming in (Maine) history, taken all together.”

In addition to the three tribal gambling bills heard by the Veteran’s and Legal Affairs Committee, lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee heard testimony in support for House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross’ proposal to create an office of tribal relations within the Maine Department of the Secretary of State.

Talbot Ross, D-Portland, originally had proposed creating a new constitutional officer to oversee tribal relations, which would have required a statewide referendum. Now, she’s proposing a full office that could work on a daily basis to address tribal issues, including economic development and education.

“We believe this is timely,” Talbot Ross said. “We believe it is practical and it also ushers in a new era of a working relationship between the tribes and the state that will happen on a day-to-day basis in a way that is not limited to one (bill) at a time.”

Talbot Ross said the office could be run by a deputy secretary of state, who would act like an executive director. That director would work with an eight-member advisory board of tribal representatives and oversee a two-person staff, consisting of a planning associate, and an economic development and education coordinator. Cost estimates were not available Wednesday.


The proposal was supported by the governor’s office, though lawmakers raised concerns about whether the committee would be able to hammer out the details in time to get the proposal to the floor for votes.

“We think the concept the speaker has described is of interest and has merit,” said Jerry Reid, the governor’s chief legal counsel. “The governor’s office intends to be part of this process constructively and thanks the speaker for what she’s done.”

The Veteran’s and Legal Affairs Committee is considering three gambling bills, including one sponsored by Rep. Ben Collings, D-Portland, that would allow the state’s four federally recognized tribes to obtain a state license to operate a casino on their own land without going through the referendum process. It also would allow them to negotiate for locating a casino on non-tribal lands outside of Penobscot and Oxford counties, which already have casinos.

Other federally recognized tribes in the United States are allowed to operate casinos. But the four tribes in Maine are limited because of the 1980 Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act, which allows the state to treat the Wabanaki Nations like municipalities, rather than sovereign nations.

Tribes currently have exclusive access to online sports betting, which launched late last year, but Collings said that is not producing enough revenue to address the needs of tribal citizens. Collings said granting casino licenses to the tribes also could help the rural communities surrounding the tribes’ reservations, much like it has elsewhere in the country.

“I believe this is a matter of basic fairness,” Collings said. “I think it’s time we step out of the way and end this discriminatory policy that we have and let tribes run their own businesses and do with that money what they see fit and also bring in much needed revenue to the rural areas of Maine and to our state’s economy.”

Tribal leaders pushed back against representatives from the state’s two large casinos, Hollywood Casino and Hotel and Oxford Casino, which argued that tribes should follow the same process they did to open a casino, which includes local approval and a statewide referendum.

Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Bryant said tribes have repeatedly tried to win approval for a casino at the ballot box, only to have each proposal defeated, while other non-tribal proposals advanced. Bryant noted that the Penobscot Nation’s high stakes BINGO night had to be ended, as a result of Hollywood Casino opening in Bangor.

“Gaming is not viewed in our community as the end-all, be-all for economic development or the ultimate tool for fixing poverty that has plagued our people in the years since we have had to build back from the theft of land and resources,” Bryant said. “However, it is an important piece of the tribal sovereignty equation and is helpful when we’re able to participate in it.”


But representatives of the Oxford and Hollywood casinos said there isn’t enough demand to support more casinos and slot machines.

“It’s a very intensely competitive business,” said Chris Jackson, of Hollywood Casino. “We’re competing for very limited gaming dollars in a rural state that is not particularly affluent.”

Corey Hinton, an attorney for the Passamaquoddy Tribe, said the current rules for establishing a casino were written to protect Maine’s two existing casinos, especially a prohibition on locating a new casino within 100 miles of an existing facility.

“I think it’s safe to say that all of those limitations that you see in state law were probably put into law with funding from casinos that are sitting in this room,” Hinton said of casino lobbyists. “One hundred miles from any of the existing casinos would effectively be pushing into the far reaches of the state where more likely than not it would be extraordinarily challenging to maintain a sustainable gaming operation.”

The committee also resumed a public hearing on a bill sponsored by Rep. Laura Supica, D-Bangor, that would extend the tribes’ exclusive rights over online sports betting to include all internet gambling. That hearing began last week, but it was cut short when the State House was evacuated for what turned out to be a fake bomb threat.

Both committees are expected to hold work sessions in the coming weeks.

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