AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine lawmakers on Wednesday advanced a tribal-rights compromise bill that would deal casinos into a new sports betting market but was still opposed by the Bangor casino, which argued it would be boxed out of a large share of revenue.
The Democratic governor took office in 2019 with a promise to improve state-tribal relations, but she has opposed most of a sweeping overhaul of a 1980 land-claims settlement that would give tribes control over natural resources, taxation and other policy areas on their lands.
On Tuesday, a legislative panel advanced a version of that more sweeping change. But a narrower package brokered by Mills and the tribes is more likely to pass this year, though differences in where the casinos would be able to take bets was a sticking point on Wednesday. The measure cleared the Judiciary Committee in an 8-6 vote.
It would give the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet tribes control of a lucrative online sports betting market after states were allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court to regulate betting in 2018, and make other smaller policy shifts in favor of tribes. Milton Champion, executive director of the Maine Gambling Control Unit, estimated 85 percent of wagers would be placed under mobile betting under the law, overshadowing the in-person market.
An initial version of that deal reserved in-person betting for off-track parlors, angering Maine’s two casinos in Bangor and Oxford, their allies and members of a legislative committee that have worked for years on a different sports betting arrangement. The new version introduced Wednesday by Assistant House Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, on behalf of tribal leaders would allow casinos into the in-person business in different ways.
Hollywood Casino in Bangor could only operate it at its nearby harness racetrack. Oxford Casino, which does not have a racetrack, could operate it at the casino itself. It is not clear how Oxford’s casino feels about the amendment.
The Bangor casino was unhappy because betting would be restricted to the Bangor Raceway in Bass Park, which opens seasonally. It favors a separate sports betting deal passed initially in the Legislature last year allowing casinos, off-track parlors and tribes to apply for licenses.
“It’s just such a marginal location that it wouldn’t benefit anybody,” lobbyist Chris Jackson, who represents the casino and its parent, Penn National Gaming, said of the raceway.
Tribes pushed back hard against those concerns, with Penobscot Nation lawyer Alison Binney, saying Hollywood Casino would still benefit because it also controls the license for the racetrack. She also noted that casinos have been favored over tribes in the gaming industry here for years and the concession was made to help commercial tracks.
The deal between Mills and tribes is most notable for the gaming changes, but it would also amend tax laws to provide benefits received by other tribes in the U.S. to Maine tribes, recoup some sales taxes and set up a consultation process on state policies affecting tribes.
The governor stopped short of embracing the new version on Wednesday, with Lindsay Crete, her spokesperson, saying Mills is following the process and hopes to continue working to “pass a strong, bipartisan bill.”
Lawmakers who supported the bill saw it as an important first step even as they expressed preference for the broader bill. But the specter of disagreement seemed to bother some.
“I think we had a chance today where everyone could have walked away happy and that’s not the case,” said Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship.
Opponents said they disagreed with the process of how the bill was amended around gaming, although some said they supported the consultation provisions. Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Oxford, said she was uneasy about overriding the other sports betting bill.
“I don’t feel right sidestepping the amount of work and collaboration that already did take place,” she said.