AUGUSTA, Maine — Gaming interests lined up Thursday to oppose Gov. Janet Mills’ proposal giving tribes significant control over sports betting, setting up a familiar argument in Maine.
Tribes and the Democratic governor do not agree on a wider sovereignty proposal, but they are closing in on a deal that would let tribes run a new mobile betting market, give them tax relief and codify a new consultation process with the state. Each of them would represent a major shift in the state’s relationship with the tribes.
But sports betting is the most contentious issue. Under the amendment, tribes would be the only entities allowed to have mobile licenses and would get most of the revenue aside from some shared with the state for regulation, addiction and horse racing resources.
The hearing was headlined by tribal leaders and several supporters who said the bill, while not a substitute for broader sovereignty, would be a critical step and lay groundwork for better economic conditions for the tribes.
But established gaming interests have historically worked against tribes on the issue. They could prove to be the largest obstacle here as well. Here are the three big hurdles for the deal.
Casinos are threatened by the prospect of competition.
Unsurprisingly, casino representatives were upset that the bill would bypass them.
It would be unfair to cut out Hollywood Casino because of the millions of dollars it has contributed to the state, argued lobbyist Chris Jackson, representing the Bangor casino. He also argued the casino industry is well equipped to run the market and bring traffic to the state.
“It’s like saying you can build the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, but you can’t host the high school basketball tournament here,” Jackson said.
Those backing the Oxford Casino are also fighting the idea. John Williams, the executive director of the regional chamber of commerce said any tribal revenue should be shared with casinos because tribes have gotten some of the casino revenue.
That piqued the interest of Rep. Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, who asked if the tribes solely benefiting from mobile options would cut into casinos’ business. Williams said that it could because people who travel to the region may gamble from home instead.
“We feel that we can work in an equitable and fair way with the Native American tribes to make this successful for the entire state of Maine,” Williams said.
Industry proponents are frustrated that their own proposal will go by the wayside.
Sports betting has been on gaming supporters’ radar since a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling deemed it legal. But a 2019 bill could not overcome a Mills veto. Proponents came back last year with a reworked measure that included the tribes as eligible entities for licenses. It passed both chambers last year but has languished without funding.
The tribal bill undercuts the Legislature’s gaming committee’s efforts to put that bill back before lawmakers, Sen. Brad Farrin, R-Norridgewock, who sits on the panel, wrote in testimony.
Members woke up to a “surprise” when Mills negotiated a new scheme “behind closed doors” without input from lawmakers or gaming interests last week, he said. They will want to be cut in as well.
Off-track betting supporters feel the deal will not benefit them enough.
The bill gives physical off-track betting facilities the sole right to operate in-person sports betting. But members of that industry were skeptical they would see enough benefits from it.
Not allowing the commercial tracks to get revenues from sports betting would likely discourage prospective builders, said Jayne Thornton, representing Winners OTB in Brunswick.
“The OTBs will not survive without online sports betting,” she said. “We have to have a portion of both.”
Denise Terry, whose family operated Scarborough Downs, which shut down in 2020, said her family now operates an off-track sports betting establishment and worked for years to get a sports betting bill before the Legislature. But because most bets are placed on phones, her business would see little money.
“So, we could end up providing the service, but getting nearly none of the revenue,” she said.