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Slot initiatives gain momentum

Mar 4, 2003 5:49 AM

A question:

If you read the following yes-or-no issue on a ballot, how would you vote?

"Do you want to allow slot machines at certain commercial horse-racing tracks if part of the proceeds are used to lower prescription-drug costs for the elderly and disabled, and for scholarships to the state universities and technical colleges."

Would you vote no?

Would you kick your dog?

Would you vote against motherhood and apple pie?

Or would you, by any chance, ask what part of the proceeds were going to lower prescription-drug costs for the elderly and disabled, and how much for scholarships, before you voted either way?

Those are the issues that Las Vegan Shawn Scott has managed to place before the voters of Maine, in his quest for slots for Bangor Raceway, in which he now owns a 49% interest.

Scott’s Capitol One LLC, based in Vegas, underwrote the petition campaign that got the question quoted above on next November’s ballot in Maine. By state law, at least 50,519 petition signatures were needed to do that, and Best Bet for Maine, which Capitol One funded, got 81,794. Only 56,581 of them were certified as valid, but that was enough to get the issue on its way to voters next fall.

I’m not sure how Shawn Scott discovered Bangor and its raceway, any more than I know where he first heard about Vernon Downs in central New York. But smart people find opportunities, and Scott now owns controlling interest in Vernon, which is getting slots as soon as legal problems are worked out in New York state, and he is in position to control Bangor Raceway as well.

Both of these properties are not too different than Delta Downs, the track that Scott picked up for $10 million in Louisiana four years ago and unloaded for $130 million two years later.

Bennett Liebman, a former New York racing commissioner who also is a writer, a savvy horse player and distinguished lawyer in New York who runs the school of wagering and racing law at the Albany Law School, thinks Scott sees Delta Downs North in Vernon Liebman wrote recently in a newsletter he issues that the reason Scott was seeking a license at Vernon (the New York State Racing and Wagering Board recently denied one for the track, and the matter has gone through the courts and hearings) was to elevate the value of Vernon so that Scott could sell it. Or turn it into a profit center so lucrative that suitors would come storming the doors, as Boyd Gaming did in seeking and successfully buying Delta Downs from Scott.

Bangor Raceway, as chronicled here last time we met, is not a big, sophisticated operation. It is a relative hole in the wall as racetracks go, and its value without slot machines is nil. The eyes of the people who run it grew big and bright when Scott showed up, and still are, and visions of sugar plums dance in their heads.

The famed Chinese journey of a thousand miles starts with one step, and getting the petition signed and the issue on the Maine ballot was that first step.

But back to the question asked earlier. How much goes to lower prescription drugs and scholarships?

According to the Portland Press Herald, not very much of the total pie. The paper says that what the ballot question means is this: Those licensed to run the slot machines would get 75% of the revenue, some of which would be shared with the host community. The remaining 25% would be divided among various racing and state programs. Of that 25%, 10% would go to the Fund for a Healthy Maine for the prescription-drug cost relief for the elderly and disabled. The 75% share to those licensed to run the machines, the paper says, could total $61.5 million.

The slot question is worded differently than a citizen initiative on the slots issue that was rejected by voters in 2000. An anti-casino political action committee called Casinos No! may challenge the wording of this petition in court. Its leader says of the petition question, "We still think people didn’t know what they were signing."

Shawn Scott did, and he’s sitting pretty once again.