Twenty years ago, in the 2003 election, Maine voters made a pivotal decision, legalizing slot machines in the state by establishing a “racino” connected to the Bangor’s Bass Park harness racing track. Fast forward to the present, and the gambling scene in Maine has undergone a significant transformation, with nearly all forms of gambling now legal, including the recent introduction of sports betting.
In contrast to the present scenario, gambling in Maine had a long history of restrictions. Half a century ago, the concept of widespread gambling, beyond on-site betting at racetracks or even a lottery, was virtually inconceivable. Apart from Nevada, from the late 1890s until the 1970s, most forms of gambling, with the exception of horse and dog racing, were illegal in the vast majority of the United States.
However, public opinion about gambling began to shift in the 1960s when New Hampshire made a bold move by creating the first state lottery in 1964. Despite facing opposition from federal agencies, religious institutions, and even the mafia, the decision proved to be financially rewarding. By the time the first lottery tickets were sold in July 1964, New Hampshire had already reaped $5.7 million, which equates to around $56 million in 2023 dollars. This success story prompted a dozen more states to follow suit in the coming decade.
In 1974, the Maine Lottery was established through a referendum, and in 1985, the Tri-State Megabucks became the first multi-state lottery involving Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. As of 2023, only five states—Nevada, Utah, Alabama, Alaska, and Hawaii—do not have lotteries.
Lotteries were a relatively low-risk form of gambling, and other higher-stakes options were gradually legalized. In 1974, Maine reached an agreement with the Wabanaki tribes to permit high-stakes bingo parlors. Off-track betting parlors also saw the light of day in 1991, with the first one opening in Waterville in 1993, followed by Bangor’s in 1994 at Miller’s Restaurant.
However, the significant hurdle was legalizing casinos in Maine. Before 1989, only two states, Nevada and New Jersey, allowed casinos. The landscape changed between 1989 and 1996, with nine more states embracing casino legalization. Additionally, starting in 1988, Native American nations began operating casinos on tribal lands under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
Efforts to introduce casino gambling in Maine faced obstacles. In 1993, a bill to permit the Passamaquoddy tribe to open a casino in Calais was proposed but did not pass. Similar bills and a tribal gaming referendum in 2003 met the same fate. State lawmakers attributed these failures to the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act of 1980, which subjects tribal lands to state law and excludes the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act’s application in the state.
Nonetheless, casino gambling eventually arrived in Maine through the 2003 gambling referendum, allowing slot machines at racetracks. In local referendums, Scarborough did not approve slot machines at the Scarborough Downs racetrack, while Bangor gave the green light for slot machines at Bass Park, becoming the state’s sole city with a casino.
Contrary to the tribal control that was anticipated, national gaming companies took the reins. Hollywood Slots, a chain of casinos operated by Pennsylvania-based Penn Entertainment, established a temporary facility at the former Miller’s Restaurant in Bangor in 2005. In 2007, it moved to a new permanent location, just across the street from Bass Park, where the off-track betting parlor was also relocated.
In 2010, voters narrowly approved a second Maine casino in Oxford County, following a failed referendum in 2007. The legislature subsequently approved table games in 2011, leading to the transformation of Hollywood Slots into Hollywood Casino.
Today, gambling is a $165 million industry in Maine as of 2022, contributing $64 million in tax revenue to the state, which supports areas like education and economic development. Moreover, with the recent legalization of sports betting, Maine’s tribes are poised to benefit from gambling revenue, after enduring decades of legislative and electoral setbacks. Mobile sports betting is under the control of the state’s four federally recognized tribes, while in-person betting is managed by casinos and off-track betting parlors.
The landscape of gambling in Maine has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past two decades. From the traditional slot machines and table games in Bangor and Oxford to betting on horse races and sports games, and even purchasing lottery tickets, the options have diversified considerably. Whether you seek an afternoon of gaming or the thrill of placing bets, Maine offers a wide array of choices to cater to your gambling interests.