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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Slots Derby - The Maine Event

With the Kentucky Derby picture heating up, so is the VLT derby, as several states are in the midst of battles over legalizing them, or what to do with ones already approved. Pennsylvania has approved them, but is now deciding where to put them, and arguing over high salaries and paid cars for the members of the gambling commission making those decisions. Maryland is in the thick of another legislative battle to bring them to the state's racetracks after seeing the bills defeated the last two years. The slots debate rages on in Kentucky and Texas but is dead for now in Indiana, bad news for Indianapolis Colts fans as well. Rhode Island has VLT's, but former executives of Lincoln Park and its corporate owner Wembley are on trial for alleged attempted bribery of a law partner of the former Speaker of the state House.

But perhaps the liveliest fight right now is going on in Maine, where Penn National Gaming is attempting to have VLT's approved for use at its Bangor Raceway harness track. Maine prides itself on transparency in its state government, so Penn National's attempt to exempt itself from public disclosure of details of its employees' backgrounds, including any criminal records, was met with outrage.

Penn National says much of the opposition to the bill comes from anti-gaming activists who are just trying to keep slots out of Maine. It says that disclosing criminal and civil litigation histories would discourage potential employees at the company's proposed casino at Bangor's harness racing track from seeking jobs.

But a lawyer for the Maine Press Association said Mainers who enjoy access to public records have a lot to lose.

"Any legislation that seeks to restrict public access to government documents and proceedings should be of real concern to people," said Michael Mahoney, who noted that the Maine press' opposition to the bill has nothing to do with the voter-approved racino itself.[Portsmouth Herald Maine News]
While a bill approved in committee this week removed the criminal record exemption, it still goes beyond what many opponents want.
But many items still remained protected, from trade secrets to information regulators determine would be an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" if released.

"It remains one of the broadest pieces of confidentiality statute that would exist in Maine law if you enact it," said Chief Deputy Attorney General Linda Pistner.

The revised bill requires the Maine Gambling Control Board to allow the public to look at most available information. It exempts marital status, home addresses and other personal information. [Maine Today]
While the bill's fate in the full state houses is unknown, Penn National has said it will accept the compromise but that it will not commence construction of the slots parlor until a bill is passed. The company has also now pissed off residents in the south of the state with the disclosure that it is actively lobbying for slots approval at Scarborough Downs, even though voters there have twice rejected the idea.

Meanwhile, casino opponents, spearheaded by a feisty organization called Casinos No! (website), while conceding the inevitability of VLT's at Bangor, is now pushing for some novel restrictions.
A bill would ban automated teller machines within 500 feet of the casino and other proposals would restrict the racino's hours of operation and place limits on slot machines losses for patrons. Casinos No! also wants to require parking lot surveillance to ensure children are not left in cars while parents gamble inside.[Portsmouth Herald Maine News]
Penn National naturally opposes all of these, and has some support from banks and police:
A former deputy chief with the Bangor Police Department, Welch said Strimling's bill was opposed by law enforcement officials who believe forcing patrons to go off-site to obtain more cash only increases the likelihood of crime.

"If there are people intent on robbing patrons, what better place to be than away from the bright lights and racino security personnel?" he asked.

Although the Maine Association of Banks has not taken a position on racinos or slot machines, the bankers worried that Strimling's bill could affect services in the future should a gaming company open up within 500 feet of an existing bank. [Bangor Daily News]
In an editorial, the Bangor Daily News reacted with appropriate sarcasm:
In Bangor, it's an economic-development strategy. This city needs to persuade residents to transfer money from their bank accounts to slot machines. That's a tough job, but it is the basis of the gambling tradition, a tradition Bangor is proud to embrace. Restrict customers from easily tapping their accounts and you've attacked the heart of that tradition. What's next, forcing them to get permission from their accountant before playing the slots?
It's a ding-dong battle to the wire, stay tuned.

- Another item from this that caught my eye was this:
During discussion about the development zone Penn must abide by, the area within a 2,000 foot radius of the center of the track, representatives of the Maine Harness Horsemen's Association said they would oppose any action that would allow the racino to be built farther away from the track.

Snyder noted that this was because the horsemen hoped having the track and casino close to each other would encourage "crossplay" between slots players and those who come to the track for pari-mutuel betting. [Bangor Daily News]
I've only been to a racino once, the parlor at Saratoga Harness, and there was no "crossplay" whatsoever between the slots and the track. No monitors, TVs, nor windows in the parlor, and they could have been running the Hambletonian outside and nobody would have known nor cared.