Lawmakers who oppose new Maine casino hope to grill backers today

Good morning from Augusta, where we’re expecting an intriguing hearing this morning as lawmakers try to get backers of the 2017 ballot initiative for a new casino in York County into a committee room to answer questions.

That ballot question is written for the benefit of developer Shawn Scott, a developer from the U.S. Virgin Islands. He and his associates would be the only ones who could get a license under the proposed question, which has been backed by more than $4.2 million through January from his sister, Lisa Scott.

It’ll be the subject of a public hearing on Wednesday at 9 a.m. in front of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs, which handles gambling issues. Hearings on citizen-initiated bills are highly uncommon, but the effort — routed through Horseracing Jobs Fairness, a ballot question committee — has been highly opaque so far and we’re not sure if backers will be there.

Here’s the statement that Augusta lobbyist Cheryl Timberlake issued this morning after our inquiry on whether or not somebody from the campaign would appear at the hearing today:

“As hearings get underway on the legislation to allow a public vote to approve locating a casino in York County, Lisa Scott from Horseracing Jobs Fairness said, ‘Voters are being given the opportunity to create new funding for public schools, generate good paying jobs, and keep tax revenues in Maine.’ She went on to say, ‘A Yes Vote will preserve tens of millions of dollars in revenues that are currently going to other New England gaming locations rather than staying in Maine. In light of the expanded gaming developments in Massachusetts, and possibly New Hampshire, it is more critical than ever to protect Maine’s jobs and tax revenues. In addition, it provides funding that helps preserve the longstanding tradition of harness racing and its heritage in Maine.

The ballot initiative requires that nearly 12 percent of casino income will be dedicated to the state to provide needed funding for Maine public schools in every county and additional scholarship funding at Maine universities and community colleges. The proposed casino will create 800 construction jobs and more than 1,000 permanent jobs.”

Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, the committee’s co-chairman and an opponent of the casino, said Monday that the hearing was intended to draw out opponents and proponents to learn more about the proposal.

“I’d like to see who supports it and who’s against it,” he said. “I think everybody does.”

There’s a lot of material to cover: Shawn Scott is a controversial gaming industry figure who has specialized in enhancing struggling facilities via referendum and selling rights for big profits. He did it with the Bangor Raceway in 2003, persuading Maine voters to allow slots behind a $1.7 million campaign, then selling the rights 2004 in for $51 million. It became Hollywood Casino.

In 2003, the Maine Harness Racing Commission issued a report that has followed Scott around ever since, alleging “sloppy, if not irresponsible” financial management at his dozens of companies, flagging his involvement in 37 lawsuits in four states between 1992 and 2000 and documenting a top employee’s history of convictions for assault, theft and other offenses.

The Bangor Daily News also reported in January on his ties to Bridge Capital, an offshore investment company that had a casino seized by the Laotian government in 2015 and later sold over allegations of bribery and tax evasion that the firm has denied.

Bridge Capital put $1.8 million into an unsuccessful push for a Massachusetts casino last year that also involved the Scotts, but the company’s involvement was hidden until just before Election Day, which drew $1.6 million in penalties from regulators there.

There are also lots of questions about what a new casino would do to casinos in Bangor and Oxford. Maine has no statewide gaming system, which leaves the process up to individual referendums. Scott’s question mandates no minimum level of investment in the facility and isn’t competitive, violating recommendations in a 2014 study for the Legislature.

Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, the other committee co-chairman, said he’s also opposed to the question for its impact on Maine’s other casinos, saying the hearing is required to learn about the bid.

“Trust me, I’ve definitely seen that the referendum is written in a unique way,” he said. “I plan on asking some questions about why that is.” — Michael Shepherd


LePage administration clarifies what the governor meant when he suggested state-run health insurance

The governor has said at least twice in recent days, once on the radio Tuesday morning and then later in the day during a press conference about his new welfare proposals at the State House, that the Affordable Care Act is doomed and that Maine might have to “go it alone” and pursue setting up its own health insurance program in the model of the state-created MEMIC workers’ compensation insurance program.

That raised eyebrows among some, since LePage has long fought the notion that government-run programs are the best course of action.

In response to a question from the Bangor Daily News about what LePage is talking about and whether it would be similar in any way to the failed Dirigo Health insurance program, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said “it is not similar in any way, shape or form. The Governor was simply referring to PL 90.”

PL 90 is a Maine law enacted in 2011 under LePage and a Republican-controlled Legislature that allowed insurers from other states to sell plans in Maine. The concept is favored by President Donald Trump and some congressional Republicans who think it will cause states to relax health insurance regulations, cause competition among private insurers and lower premiums.

Despite Maine’s passage of PL 90, no insurance companies have responded to the state Bureau of Insurance’s overtures. Two other states — Georgia and Wyoming — have allowed the interstate sale of health insurance but there were no takers there, either. Read a detailed description of PL 90 and what it does and doesn’t do from the BDN’s Jackie Farwell by clicking here. — Christopher Cousins


Quick hits

  • Maine’s congressional delegation split on a bill to reverse an Obama-era Internet privacy rule. The repeal of a Federal Communications Commission rule barring broadband providers from tracking users’ activities and selling data passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday, and it’s now heading to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign the bill. Republicans have targeted the rule for putting providers at a disadvantage compared to web-based companies such as Google, but Democrats and civil libertarians argued that it would roll back U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican from Maine’s 2nd District, voted for the repeal, saying in a statement that the FCC rule gave “an unequal advantage and preference to a handful of companies who wouldn’t be under their jurisdiction.” Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District, said in a Twitter video that the repeal “makes no sense.” Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, voted for the repeal last week, while independent U.S. Sen. Angus King voted against it. — Michael Shepherd
  • Maine launches new television advertisement against opioid abuse. Attorney General Janet Mills announced Tuesday that a new “Dose of Reality” television ad will hit the airwaves in the coming months that traces the link between prescription painkillers and heroin addiction. The advertisement, which you can watch by clicking here, will be made available to the Maine Association of Broadcasters’ Public Education Partnership. The advertisements are available in Maine because of a partnership Mills forged with Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel. — Christopher Cousins
  • Susan Collins meets with USA Gymnastics Team in call for measures to avoid sexual abuse. On the heels of legislation she submitted earlier this month, Collins met with members of the gymnastics team Tuesday in Washington. The legislation would require amateur athletics governing bodies to immediately report sex-abuse allegations and to strengthen oversight of gymnasiums and coaches. A recent investigation found that more than 368 gymnasts have alleged sexual abuse in the past two decades. — Christopher Cousins

Today in A-town

Tuesday was a very busy day in Augusta, as you’ll see in the reading list below. The House and Senate have today off but several legislative committees will be cranking at full steam. Here’s their soundtrack.

A proposal is being floated to alter how long lawmakers can serve. Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, will introduce a proposal to the State and Local Government today that would trigger a referendum to amend the Maine Constitution. Sanderson’s proposal will increase House and Senate terms from two years to four years and limit the number of consecutive terms allowed in Maine from four to two. There have been numerous attempts in recent years to alter how long legislators can serve but none have gained much traction. This one would preserve a lawmaker’s maximum eight-year run but require fewer elections.

It will be a somber day in the Labor, Research and Economic Development Committee, where there are a number of bills being introduced that have to do with funeral and cremation services. Here’s their soundtrack, meant to heighten the mood. Those public hearings will conclude with a veer toward a bill that would make certain birth control pills and patches available over the counter. Here’s a soundtrack for that.

Recycling is on the docket in the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, where there could be votes on several recycling and reuse proposals. County jail funding, an issue that has been simmering for years, is up for a work session in the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

The list of today’s committee activity goes on and on. Check it out in its entirety by clicking here. — Christopher Cousins


Reading list


Happy Smoke and Mirrors Day

We’re sure this is just a coincidence given the hearing this morning on the casino referendum, but today is National Smoke and Mirrors Day, according to Checkiday.com. The website notes that March 29 has “always” been Smoke and Mirrors Day, which we doubt (did the Romans have mirrors?) but we’ll let it slide. Here’s your soundtrack.

And here’s an apology: The Daily Brief failed to inform you that yesterday was National Something on a Stick Day. We are so, so sorry if that caused you to miss the observance. We promise to be more on the ball, I mean on a stick, next year. — Christopher Cousins

With tips, pitches, questions or feedback, email us at politics@bangordailynews.com. If you’re reading The Daily Brief on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics and policy delivered via email every weekday morning.

 

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.