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Maine kills casino in anti-sovereignty hangover

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INDIAN TOWNSHIP, Maine - Concessions more than two decades ago continue to haunt Maine's two largest tribes. The crushing defeat of an Indian casino referendum Nov. 4 is the latest reminder of the cost of a much-criticized bargain the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Indians made for federal recognition in 1980.

The two tribes had to turn to Maine voters for approval because the 1980 federal and state acts that settled their land claims suits compromised their sovereignty rights so severely that they do not have recourse to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA)that is the basis for the tribal casino engine for economic development.

Maine continued its tradition of suppressing Indians by defeating the casino measure by a nearly two-to-one margin. The vote was more anti-Indian than anti-gaming, since a "racino" measure on the same ballot passed, in early counting, by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent. The state's harness racing industry will be allowed to install slot machines at two tracks.

Robert Newell, governor of the Passamaquoddy Indian Township reservation, told the Portland Press Herald, "Once you start to be in control, they don't like that. Maine is a racist state."

Bitter feelings were running high among the three tribal governments backing the Two Tribes Casino project.

(The Passamaquoddy Indians have two separately governed reservations, at Indian Township and Pleasant Point.) These are the same governments whose leaders faced the threat of a year in jail for contempt of court in a fight over releasing internal tribal records to paper companies they accused of polluting their river systems.

The tribes accepted a compromise ordered by Maine's highest court when the federal Circuit Court of Appeals refused to act on their sovereignty arguments. Two other federally recognized Maine tribes, the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians and the Houghton Band of Maliseets, were not involved in the suit and claim a different legal basis for their recognition than the 1980 Maine Settlement Act. They also did not participate in the casino project.

Some state commentators say voters reacted against the massive size of the proposed Two Tribes Casino. The $650 million project, one of the largest in Maine's history, would have been built in the depressed working class town of Sanford near the state's southern border and the densely populated Boston market. Supporters of the casino and hotel complex said it would have provided at least 4,000 jobs for a state steadily losing its manufacturing base.

The contractor would have been the Las Vegas development firm of Marnell Corrao, which financed the bulk of the intense campaign for the referendum and previously built the Las Vegas strip's famed Bellagio casino and resort.

By contrast, the voters green-lighted a $30 million gaming complex in Bangor, which will be developed by the Las Vegas investors Capital Seven LLC.

The Bangor complex, when built, will contrast sharply with the nearby bingo operations of the Penobscot Indians on their Old Town reservation, which has been restricted by state law to one night a month.

Voters might also have reacted to the sheer volume of the debate. The campaign for and against the Indian casino, Question Three on the ballot, cost nearly $10 million. The debate on the racino Question Two consumed around $1.5 million.

Although discouraged, tribal leaders are still actively pursuing other projects for economic development and environmental restoration. The Penobscot Nation recently announced a project in conjunction with state environmental groups to restore the free flow of the Penobscot River. Apart from the Everglades, it would be the largest river restoration plan in the east.

The vote is hardly the end of casino proposals in New England. The Massachusetts legislature is debating measures to allow off-reservation gaming development for its one federally recognized tribe, the Aquinnah Wampanoag based on the island of Martha's Vineyard.

The Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island is also hoping to reserve a Congressional rider from the mid-90s which in a unique move explicitly denied it access to IGRA.