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Penobscots' slot bill tabled until January

AUGUSTA, Maine - A bill that would allow the Penobscot Indian Nation to operate 400 slot machines at its high stakes bingo game on tribal land was tabled on the last day of the legislative session and carried over to the next session in January.

''After consultation with Chief [Kirk] Francis and Tribal Council, I made the decision not to move forward with the bill because after several discussions with the governor's staff it was clear that the governor would veto the bill no matter how it was amended,'' Penobscot Nation Rep. Donna Loring said in a posting on her blog the day after the session ended June 22.

The bill needed two-thirds approvals from the House and Senate to ward off a promised veto from Gov. John Baldacci. The bill received a veto-proof approval from the House, but was about two votes shy of a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

''The Senate's first vote was 20 to 15 and we changed two votes over to 22 and there were two others we thought would go for it, so we would have had the two-thirds, but they decided not to send it to the governor's desk, and instead to carry it over,'' said Ben Collings, a Penobscot lobbyist.

An out-of-state, non-Native company owns Hollywood Slots in Bangor. The gaming operation was approved at a referendum in 2006 and had gross and net revenues of $564 million and $37 million, respectively, that year, running 475 of the 1,500 slot machines they are allowed to operate. The company is in the process of expanding to include the maximum number of slots.

Baldacci says he has consistently opposed the expansion of gaming in the state and has maintained that gaming bills should go to referendum. But he introduced - without a referendum - a $10 million-generating Power Ball game into the state lottery to balance the budget during the last legislative session. The boost brought state gaming revenues up to $50 million.

Baldacci opposed legislation last year that would have allowed the Passamaquoddy Tribe to own and operate a racino, but the tribe collected more than 50,000 signatures on a petition to send the bill to referendum in November.

Loring said that Baldacci had sent ''the message'' that he would sign the Penobscot slots bill if she, as the bill's sponsor, agreed to send it to a referendum vote in November, but she rejected the offer.

''I have adamantly refused to do this as the governor's office would work towards turning [the Penobscot slot bill] into a competing measure ... where the choice on the ballot would be either the [Passamaquoddy's] Washington County racino or the slots for the Penobscot Nation. I refuse to allow this to be used as a divisive issue between the tribes.''

Loring said she chose to keep the bill alive by carrying it over to January, allow supporters time to assess the situation, decide how to proceed and possibly make amendments to the bill to garner the veto-proof support needed.

But, Loring said, ''I do find it very frustrating that the governor continues to go against the majority votes in the Legislature on this issue.''

The tribe is seeking the slots approval because its high stakes bingo revenues have declined significantly since the Hollywood Slots operation was launched.

''High stakes bingo is the economic engine that so far has kept our tribal jobs and programs functioning. Without the use of this economic tool we will lose 70 part-time jobs and will have to lay off a number of tribal workers,'' Loring said.

''I have seen this governor rally his staff and state departments to help towns when the business that keeps the town alive is going under. We are going under and have asked for a life jacket, and the governor has tried to throw us a cement block. We're still afloat and hoping that there is a life jacket out there,'' Loring said.

In January, the bill will go back to the Legal and Veterans' Affairs Committee, where it could become a referendum proposal for a ballot vote in June or November in 2008.