Maine's Harness Racing Commission voted Tuesday to give Penn National Gaming Inc. the go-ahead to operate Bangor Raceway, bringing slot machines a step closer to reality at the state's commercial tracks.
The commission's 4-0 approval of a conditional license for the publicly traded Pennsylvania company came five days before a voter-approved state law takes effect that allows commercial tracks to have slot machines.
The law was intended to revitalize Maine's struggling harness racing industry by attracting more people, but it has since bogged down in regulatory, legislative and court venues amid concerns about out-of-state ownership and lack of oversight.
Under Maine law, Penn National must demonstrate financial responsibility and "good moral character" in order to get a license to run the track.
The commission also set a condition that the Bangor track's grandstand, where renovations begun under the previous owner are incomplete, be ready for public use when the race schedule starts April 15, said Henry Jackson, executive director of the commission.
The commission's licensing vote came after it rejected bids by Maine Indian tribes and two anti-gambling groups to participate in the licensing proceedings.
While the commission's 3-1 vote delighted horsemen and others in the industry, a lawyer for the Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe promised to immediately ask a Superior Court judge in Bangor to block the denial.
Richard Spencer, who represented the tribes, later referred to the board as "basically a runaway commission that doesn't observe the rules." Maine's attorney general's office had issued a memorandum a day earlier saying the tribes qualified for intervener status.
Casinos NO! spokesman Dennis Bailey said that group also intends to legally challenge the commission's vote denying intervener status. The commission's vote also bars intervenor status for the Christian Civic League of Maine.
Racing industry officials made clear their desire to move forward on the license application, noting that the horsemen need to prepare for a season that's 90 days away.
A lawyer for the Scarborough Downs track also questioned the timing and motives of those requesting intervener status, saying they were doing so in an effort to reverse November's racino vote "or steal this opportunity for themselves."
"These Johnny-come-latelys do not belong" in the case, the attorney, Ed MacColl, said to cheering and applauding from racing enthusiasts who packed a hearing room at the Augusta Civic Center.
The tribes' lawyer said the Penobscots and Passamaquoddys deserved intervener status because both are local governments. Spencer also noted that the Penobscots stand to be affected by the case since they run a high-stakes beano operation on their reservation 14 miles from Bangor.
While the tribes have expressed a desire to open the process so they can get a shot at operating a racino, Casinos NO! hoped carry forth its view that gambling "is a problem that needs to be strictly regulated," said its lawyer, Jamie Kilbreth.
The civic league also believes an expansion of gambling represents a threat to the social fabric of Maine, said its representative, Tim Russell.