AUGUSTA, Maine - The Passamaquoddy Tribe's proposal to build a racino is one step closer to reality following a state legislative committee's overwhelming support for the plan.
On March 28, the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, a joint House and Senate committee, voted 12 - 1 in favor of the tribe's proposal to build and operate a commercial harness racing track with slot machines in the tribe's ancestral territory now known as Washington County in northern Maine.
The measure will move on to the full legislature where a ''lively debate'' is expected.
The tribe welcomed the committee vote, Rep. Donald Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy representative to the Legislature, said.
''It gives us hope. We've been working on this issue for the last 15 years. We live in a corner of Maine where businesses don't like to go because of the isolation and travel expense, so the tribe looked at gaming, and when we tried to have this in southern Maine where the highest populations are, the people there didn't want this type of business, so it didn't go anywhere. But they did say, if a gaming proposal goes to Washington County where we live, they would support it. So we've moved our proposal to our part of the state where it's probably needed most,'' Soctomah said.
During the committee's review, Rep. Gary Moore, R-Standish, said that some legislators who oppose the tribe's proposal have made racist remarks, such as ''Indians are lazy and want a free ride,'' and referred to American Indians as ''welfare warriors'' and ''drunks and addicts'' who want to ''gamble their lives away.'' Moore said he was disgusted by such comments.
Soctomah said it was unusual for a legislator to even admit that racism exists among the state's lawmakers.
''I think it surprised a lot of people when the representative made those statements about the racism he's heard in the halls of the Legislature. For a committee member to stand up and make that statement is rare. When a Native person makes a statement about racism, people just wave it off saying it's just someone who's upset at the system; but when people hear it from someone other than a tribal person, it gives it validity,'' Soctomah said.
''As Native people we live with racism all the time, so I'm glad he brought it up,'' Soctomah said.
Moore, who supports the tribal initiative, also said he had received an e-mail saying that ''the Lord opposes'' the racino, because it would ''destroy'' the tribe.
Soctomah shrugged off the comment as simply another face of racism.
''It's OK for them to have it [gaming], but they don't want the tribes to have it,'' he said.
But the tribe does not want to turn the racino proposal into a racial issue, Soctomah commented.
''We want to be positive and move ahead. We deal with racism all the time and we don't want to go in that direction. We want to show the benefits this will bring not only to the tribe, but also the towns and state,'' Soctomah said.
The most obvious benefit would be the alleviation of the extreme poverty of both tribal and non-tribal people living in Washington County.
The most recent study from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine showed Washington County again leading the state in virtually all measures of poverty.
Among the bleak statistics: median household income was almost 28 percent below the state level; the ''livable wage'' for a four person household was more than twice as high as the poverty level; unemployment was more than three percentage points higher than the state average; and over half of the country's school population was eligible for free and reduced price school lunch last year.
''The statistics are staggering,'' Soctomah said. ''People are unemployed because there's not work available, not because they don't want to work. We want people to see that that's why we're bringing this forward.''
The tribe's chances of success are much greater now than in previous years.
At a referendum in 2003, Maine voters defeated a proposal for an Indian casino in southern Maine while approving a non-Native racino at an already existing Bangor race track.
The current proposal made it to the Legislature following a petition drive last year that garnered more than 50,000 signatures. Under the state Constitution, the Legislature has to approve a citizens' ''initiated bill'' without change or it goes to referendum.
''I'm expecting a lively debate myself in the Legislature,'' Soctomah said.
If the Legislature approves the bill, Gov. John Baldacci can veto it, as he vetoed the previous racino bills. The Legislature could override his veto with a two-third vote; but even if the governor's veto were sustained, the bill would go to referendum in November.
Supporters of the bill say that voters are even more likely to approve of it because it would be unfair to deny the tribe a racino now that the non-Native Hollywood Slots in Bangor is up and running. The Bangor slots operation has not only proved to be an economic boon to the state, adding 39 percent of its $37 million in net revenues to state and local funds, but also disproved the claims of increased crime and other social disasters.
The tribe plans to turn over 41 percent of its racino revenues to the state and local towns, Soctomah said.
Dennis Bailey of Maine's anti-gambling group CasinosNo! said the group will oppose the bill if it has the opportunity to do so.
''If the legislature passes it, we can't do anything about it,'' Bailey said; but if the issue goes to the voters next November, CasinosNo! will mount an opposition campaign.
''CasinosNo! is opposed to the expansion of gambling, period. We don't think casinos in any way represent economic development for anybody. They're a sham, they're a scam, they're a fraud, they prey on poor people, low income people and give them nothing in return. Washington County is the poorest country in the state with high unemployment rates, high additions rates; it's the worst place to put something like this,'' Bailey said.
CasinosNo! formed three years ago to oppose the referendum proposal for an Indian casino in southern Maine. Although the group opposed the non-Indian racino proposal, it did not have the money to mount an advertising campaign against it, Bailey said.