Intentionally Unreasonable: Gambling with Maine’s future

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HVOLSVOLLUR, ICELAND — I’m here in the beautiful country of Iceland with my son Zack, and I’m slightly bummed out.

It’s 3 a.m. EDT, and when I began this column my intent was to share some details of what has been one of the most incredible travel adventures of my life. But, then I checked my email and a bit of Maine news caught my ire.

I’m livid at state Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, along with any and all other state legislators who are now supporting the expansion of gaming, i.e. more casinos, in Maine.

It’s not that I’m against gambling, it’s that I’m against stupid politicians enacting stupid policy in a clumsy manner in an attempt to solve complex problems. It only gets worse when they do it hiding behind a “consultant’s report.” (A costly art form made popular by Gov. Paul LePage.)

Last week, Valentino and a bipartisan group of legislators began a public relations campaign to push new legislation aimed at adding another casino or two in Maine. While on the surface their proposed bill includes new measures to regulate elements of gambling, it would appear that the core issue is nothing more than a naked attempt to add more casinos.

Why? Because they are hiding behind a report done by a group called White Sands Gaming that says Maine “could” support two additional casinos. But what it doesn’t say is whether we “should.” And, the answer to that question is “no” – an answer any responsible legislator should land on.

The root problem isn’t directly related to casinos or adding slot machines to horse tracks, gas stations or ice cream stands. The real problem is that we have an ineffective state Legislature that isn’t smart enough or strong enough to tackle Maine’s real economic challenges and systemic financial challenges. So instead of making the necessary (and uncomfortable) decisions to really solve our long-term problems, the elected folks in Augusta look to short-term excuses and hide behind consultant reports.

The key issue in Maine is numerical, but it doesn’t involve gambling. We live in a state with more than 35,000 square miles of space, 488 municipalities, and 1.3 million people. With a population density of only 43 people per square mile, we have the financial burden of a huge infrastructure supported by a small and old population, spread out across an enormous state. And as Maine tries to function in the national and global economy – an economy that greatly favors population density and efficiency – we just can’t effectively compete. So we keep raising taxes and other barriers of entry for economic growth, which only perpetuates the cycle.

But, instead of recognizing this truth and acting upon it, our state legislators continue to ignore it in favor of stupid answers to complex challenges. Maine didn’t need fireworks. Maine should never consider approving commercial highway billboards, or adding a thousand more slot machines, or changing the liquor tax fee structure to encourage higher consumption.

Maine is a special place. I believe, one of the most special and beautiful places in the world. But, we must identify and vigorously protect the core elements of Maine before we lose them by legislative erosion.

Yes, Maine has an inherently weak, old-economy engine that is a byproduct of the long-gone textile and wood industries. But let’s evolve and innovate our way forward with better policy and vision. Another thousand slot machines may solve some short-term budget challenges, but that lazy legislative path will never deliver the promised jackpot.

I meet people from all over the world who talk about wanting to visit Maine when they hear how beautiful and pristine it is. No one has ever asked me if slot machines are readily available.

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Steve Woods is from away, but fully here now, living in Yarmouth, working in Falmouth, traveling the world, and trying his best. His column appears every other week. He can also be heard each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLOB-AM 1310.