Capitol Notebook: New casino, Medicaid expansion top the ballot

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Much of the media focus leading up to the Nov. 7 election will center on a $6 million dollar campaign by a controversial gambling entrepreneur to build a casino in York County.

Mainers will also decide an issue that has been stalled by the governor for several years: an expansion of Medicaid coverage to 70,000 low-income Mainers.

And in another sign of the increased use of petition drives to mold state policy, activists from the Maine People’s Alliance will soon gather signatures hoping to hike Mainers’ taxes to fund expanded services for seniors.

But the ultra-high-stakes quest for a new casino will dominate the airwaves.

Question 1 would allow a casino permit only for a company controlled by Shawn Scott, who gained gambling approvals for the Bangor Racetrack and then sold it for $51 million. If approved, he would likely sell a casino license for York County for $150 million or more.

The proponents aim to promote the requirement that some of the net income from slot machines and table games would go to fund state services, such as K-12 education; but the exact amount of funds for those purposes is unclear. A recent pro-casino mailer featured a “conceptual drawing” that evoked a New England prep school, complete with lighthouse.

The pro-casino PAC, Progress for Maine, spent $1.5 million in the most recent period, and reported over $1 million in unpaid debts. The PAC has already spent more than $560,000 for a high-powered Washington consulting firm, Goddard Gunster, architects of the recent successful Brexit campaign. A bill for $629,000 to that firm remains outstanding, meaning the pro-casino forces are on track to spend well over $1.3 million with a firm that boasts a 90 percent success rate in referendum campaigns.

Pro-casino forces have also spent $100,000 for the services of a former Maine attorney general, Andrew Ketterer. And over $4 million was spent getting the issue on the ballot.

But a campaign costing more than $6 million will be a bargain for proponents if they can obtain and sell a casino license for an estimated $150 million. And Maine’s ballot initiative process will have been successfully hijacked for individual profit.

The second major ballot question aims to expand Medicaid coverage for low-income Mainers, which the governor and Legislature have refused to do.

Question 2 would expand Medicaid health coverage, available under the Affordable Care Act, to 70,000 low-income Mainers. Single adults making about $16,600, or a couple making just over $22,400, would be eligible for coverage. Proponents argue the importance of providing health care to low-income Mainers who may be working, but still unable to afford health insurance. Hospitals, which face financial challenges, have endorsed it.

And as policy by referendum expands, voters on Nov. 7 may also be asked to sign a Maine Peoples Alliance petition for a 1.9 percent tax increase on incomes over $127,000, as well as a payroll tax hike in the same amount. A 3.8 percent tax hike would be added onto dividend and other unearned income.

The ease with which referendum questions get on the ballot prompted several attempts in this Legislative session to tighten the rules, including requiring signatures from each Congressional district. These mostly went nowhere, because legislators are loath to change the rules governing referendums, or election practices generally.

On Nov. 7, voters will also decide a bond issue that would authorize $105 million in spending on roads and bridges to be matched by $137 million in federal funds. Rounding out the state ballot is a constitutional amendment that would lengthen the period for amortization of an unfunded liability in the pension system from 10 years to 20 years. That is intended to ease the strain on the state budget, which has to make up the difference.

The referendum process is an important safeguard enshrined in the state Constitution, but its increasing use reflects a failure in a divided and partisan Legislature to set firm policies on issues like casino expansion, which have then gone to referendum.

This upcoming off-year election is of course just a prelude to next year’s Big Event, as 2018 brings the chance to elect a new governor and Legislature that could end Augusta’s political stalemate.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.

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