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Penobscot slots bill wins supermajority

AUGUSTA, Maine - The state Senate approved a bill April 9 that would allow the Penobscot Indian Nation to operate 100 slot machines at its high-stakes bingo facility on Indian Island.

The vote was 24 - 10, and followed a House vote a week earlier that approved the bill 101 - 42.

The supermajority approval in both chambers theoretically can override a promised veto by Gov. John Baldacci, but it has to overcome a few more obstacles before it's firmly lodged in Maine law.

The nation's original proposal to operate 400 slot machines was reduced to 100 slots in a House amendment. Senate approval of that amendment April 9 now sends the bill back to the House for enactment, then back again to the Senate for enactment.

Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis was cautiously optimistic that the veto-proof supermajority will hold.

''Usually those [enactment votes] are just formalities, so I don't see any real issue there. It should get through that process OK, and then it goes to the governor's desk and it's pretty clear he intends to veto it; and once he vetoes it then it goes back to the Legislature for another vote to override the veto,'' he said.

Between the veto and the override vote, he said, there's room to ''pick off'' a few supporters of the bill.

''So it's really a tough process for our side, but the Senate vote is good news. At the very least, he's going to have mud on his face if he vetoes it because it's the first time in the history of Indian gaming in this state that there's been a two-thirds vote in the Senate.''

A racino initiative by the Passamaquoddy Indians was narrowly defeated last fall after CasinosNO!, an anti-Indian casino group, paid $195,000 for a last-minute campaign against the proposal in a series of negative television ads created by the same media firm - Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm of Alexandria, Va. - the Swift Boat Veterans used to sink Sen. John Kerry's presidential bid in 2004. The expenditure was recorded by the Maine Ethics Commission.

Maine tribes have tried five times unsuccessfully to regain their rights to economic development through gaming, he pointed out.

''The thing that really needs to be pointed out here is that gaming has grown immensely in Maine over the last several years. The state just expanded the lottery. Scratch tickets are now in 1,600 locations. We have Powerballs and, of course, Hollywood Slots right here in Bangor. And the state legitimizes all of this by balancing the budget with gaming revenues, by setting the regulations for it, and it's grown over this governor's administration. I just think that his argument of 'well, I just don't want the expansion of gaming in Maine' isn't really backed up by the evidence at all,'' Francis said.

Ironically, the Penobscots used to operate a small successful slots parlor before they were federally acknowledged in the settlement of its land claims in 1980.

''We were doing very well. We were told we were operating outside the law so we stopped and we've been trying to get that right back for 30 years and every time we approach it especially since the introduction of slots in Maine, now we say now they're here and we'd like to have this right back,'' he said.

Francis was on his way to the governor's office April 10 to deliver a letter from he Wabanaki tribes in support of the Penobscot slot bill.

''We're unified on this bill. Hopefully we'll get him to see reason and, basically, what we're asking at this point is for him to let the bill go through without his signature. He doesn't have to support it, he can just let it go through and then it can become law. We think we're being really optimistic, but we plan on trying.''