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Maine legislators back video gambling, Powerball

Maine LotteryMaine Lottery: Maine legislators back video gambling, Powerball

Efforts to expand gambling in Maine took a step forward Thursday when a legislative committee endorsed both a bill to let nonprofit groups offer video gambling and a proposal for the state to join the Powerball lottery.

The Powerball and video-gambling proposals will now go to the full Legislature in January, prolonging a complex debate over gambling in Maine.

The upcoming debate will pit supporters of the two plans against dissenting lawmakers and Gov. John Baldacci, who does not like either one of them.

"He's not in favor of Powerball," said Lee Umphrey, Baldacci's spokesman.

But Umphrey stopped short of saying Baldacci will veto that bill if the Legislature passes it. Umphrey said Baldacci, who has opposed casino gambling and slot machines since he took office last January, probably will veto the video-gambling bill if the Legislature sends that one to him.

The Legislature passed the Powerball bill during the last session and sent it to Baldacci. But lawmakers quickly recalled the bill from the governor's desk before he could act on it.

The Legislature also tackled the video-gambling issue earlier this year, but the House and Senate were unable to agree on what to do with it at that time. So they sent the bill back to committee for another look before the 2004 legislative session.

That set the stage for Thursday's actions by the Legislature's Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee.

The committee voted unanimously to recommend that Maine join more than 20 states that already participate in the Powerball lottery. The appeal is the lure of more money for Maine's cash-strapped state government, although the director of the state Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations said there is no official estimate of how much money the state would take in.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Kenneth Gagnon, D-Waterville, estimates the state would pull in about $7 million a year. He said Maine is losing lottery revenues to New Hampshire, which sells Powerball tickets.

Four of the six New England states - New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island - are in the Powerball game. Massachusetts participates in a separate multi-state game.

The committee voted 9-2, with two members absent, in favor of allowing veterans organizations and fraternal groups to offer video gambling that includes cash prizes.

That bill would allow each eligible organization to have up to five video-gambling machines. Video gambling is legal in Maine now, but only if the "prize" is another shot at the game, said Lt. John Dyer of the Maine State Police. Over the years, the police have seized illegal video-gambling games that offer credits redeemable for cash.

The bill would require that video-gambling machines pay out at least 80 percent of their revenue in prizes. The rest of the money would be split among the state, to cover administrative costs; municipal revenue sharing for cities and towns; programs to fight gambling addiction; and the clubs themselves. The clubs would have to use their share for charitable purposes.

Supporters say video gambling is widespread, so the state might as well legalize and regulate it. Opponents say such an expansion of gambling flies in the face of recent referendum votes on other gambling plans.

"It's already going on in a lot of places in our districts, and we all know that," said Rep. Roger Landry, D-Sanford.

Rep. Kevin Glynn, R-South Portland, who voted against the bill, countered that legalizing video gambling in clubs would create "little mini-casinos in all of these communities."

On Nov. 4, Maine voters overwhelmingly defeated a referendum that would have allowed the Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe to build a casino in Maine. But the tribes have not ruled out proposing another casino in the future.

Voters supported a referendum legalizing slot machines at commercial racetracks - so-called racinos - but many aspects of that plan remain unresolved.

On yet another gambling front, Baldacci says he intends to veto a bill that the Legislature passed earlier this year legalizing slot machines at off-track betting parlors. The Governor's Office says Baldacci plans to veto the bill shortly after lawmakers return to the State House in January, triggering a legislative fight over whether to sustain or override the veto.

Press Herald

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