Lawmakers advance bill to give mobile sports betting licenses to Maine tribes

·4 min read

Mar. 17—State lawmakers narrowly advanced a bill that would allow Maine's tribes to operate mobile sports betting businesses, and authorize harness racing tracks, off-track betting facilities and the Oxford Casino to conduct in-person sports betting.

The Judiciary Committee voted 8-6 Wednesday to advance a bill of targeted tribal sovereignty reforms negotiated between the Mills administration and Maine's four tribes. While leaders of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Penobscot Nation, the Houlton Band of Maliseets and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs (or Mi'kaq) support the bill, they do not see it as a substitute for a comprehensive sovereignty bill narrowly endorsed by the same committee Tuesday but opposed by Mills.

The governor's proposal would make other limited changes, such as removing state sales taxes from certain goods and services produced and consumed on tribal territories or giving the revenues from those taxes to the tribes, and lifting state taxes on incomes earned by tribal members on their reservations.

But when the bill, L.D. 585, goes before the full Legislature in the coming weeks, the committee recommendation will come with four minority reports, including three amended versions and an ought-not-to-pass recommendation.

The committee spent over three hours discussing the bill before voting late Wednesday afternoon. Most of the attention focused on a last-minute amendment that addresses criticism from Maine's gambling interests, which wanted similar access to sports betting. The amended version would allow commercial harness racing tracks in Bangor and Cumberland and the Oxford Casino to offer in-person sports betting, while tribes would have exclusive rights to the operation of mobile sports betting, which is done from computers or cellphones.

The original bill only would have allowed in-person sports betting at off-track betting facilities, but the tribes also wanted to support harness racing tracks, said Allison Binney, an attorney for the Penobscot Nation. She said the tribes included Oxford Casino after realizing that Hollywood Casino would be able to conduct sports betting at Bangor Raceway, which it operates as a condition for having the casino.

"The Wabanaki Nations support the inclusion of commercial tracks, including Hollywood Casino Raceway Bangor (Bangor Raceway), and Oxford Casino for facility licenses to conduct retail in-person sports betting," the Wabanaki chiefs said in a letter to the committee Tuesday. "The inclusion of these entities will directly benefit the two casino operators in Maine."

Chris Jackson, a lobbyist for Hollywood Casino, urged lawmakers to allow the company to operate the sports betting facility at the Bangor casino, rather than the racetrack, which he said is across the street and ill-suited for in-person sports betting. He said the raceway only generates 1 percent of the foot traffic generated by the casino.

"It's simply not practical to give the racetrack a retail sports book license," Jackson said. "If the Oxford Casino is getting a license, our strong preference would be that the license just go to the Bangor casino. That would generate more traffic to the raceway than the raceway would generate to the casino."

But a majority of committee members, all Democrats, were not moved by that argument.

"The point of this was to give the tribes access to mobile betting. That's my only interest in this bill," said Rep. Lois Galgay Reckitt, D-South Portland. "I have zero sympathy to Hollywood casino."

Rep. Christopher Babbidge, D-Kennebunk, joined Republicans on the committee in opposing the governor's bill. His minority report would amend the proposal to increase the amount of funding going into the state's General Fund from 6.5 percent of gross sports wagering receipts to 25 percent.

Republicans, who questioned the financial impacts of the bill, also offered several minority reports.

Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, said she would only support a portion of the bill that called for greater collaboration and communication between the state and tribes, an idea endorsed by Rep. James Thorne, R-Carmel.

Rep. Jennifer Poirier, R-Skowhegan, moved a minority report that would remove the bill's gaming provision and incorporate a mobile gaming bill, L.D. 1352, that has already been approved by the Legislature. The tribes oppose that bill, however, saying their communities would not benefit.

Rep. David Hagan, R-Hampden, said none of the bills should pass, although he would consider Keim's report.

HAILED AS A STEP FORWARD

Supporters hailed the bill has a step forward in tribal relations.

Sen. Heather Sanborn, D-Portland, said the bill was a first step toward needed tribal tax reform, economic development opportunities and improved collaboration with the state.

"This is not the civil rights bill that yesterday's bill was and for that I am disappointed," Sanborn said. "I am pleased it's a bill that was negotiated over a period of time in good faith. I hope it receives bipartisan support as it moves forward."

Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, said she was happy to support the bill, saying it was the result of lengthy negotiations between the state and tribes.

"This is a really solid, well-balanced legislation that from a policy perspective achieves what is one of my top priorities, which is supporting the Wabanaki nations in Maine and fostering significant economic growth and recognition of their importance to our state," Carney said.