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Reps. Stephen Dargan, Joe Verrengia and Sen. Tim Larson (Christine Stuart photo)

A push to add three new casinos in Connecticut took a step forward Thursday with the approval of the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee.

Connecticut is currently home to two casinos run by two different native american tribes, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, both on sovereign, tribal-owned land.

Those two tribes have historically been competitors — Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods sit only a few miles apart — but the proposal now under consideration would see a partnership between the two tribes to build gaming facilities outside the reservations.

The issue is increased competition. Connecticut’s share of revenues derived from the existing casinos, as per a compact between the tribes and the state in force since Lowell Weicker was governor, has dropped by more than half in the past decade. Last year, Connecticut garnered just $200 million from the casinos.

Meanwhile, nearby states are gambling heavily on casinos, with the most recent threat to Connecticut’s gaming dollars being built right over the border in Springfield, Mass.

The casino in Springfield is scheduled to be completed in just two years, and the intention, as Democratic leaders announced last week, is to help the Connecticut tribes compete by allowing a similar facility to be built in an as-yet undecided town along the I-91 corridor, north of Hartford.

Objections to the proposal from Public Safety and Security Committee members ranged from economic to moral, and the committee chairman, Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, said the issue cuts across party lines.

“It’s not a Republican caucus issue or a Democratic caucus issue. It’s just whatever your beliefs are,” he said.

The bill passed the committee by a 15-8 vote with the acknowledgement that a lot of the details still need to be discussed. They narrowly defeated an amendment that would have prohibited the state from giving the tribes any financial assistance or economic development grants for the venture.

“We only heard testimony on this bill two days ago,” Rep. Linda Orange, D-Colchester, said. “It doesn’t give us time to think and consider all the aspects of this bill.”

That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Joe Verrengia, D-West Hartford, who noted that the Mashantucket Pequot tribe had sought a license to build a gaming facility in Massachusetts only last year.

“What’s not lost on me is that the tribes were in competition over state lines to build their own casinos,” Verrengia said. “Those same jobs, those same revenues they’re trying to protect today, are those same revenues, those same jobs that would have left the state if they had been successful.”

As negotiations move forward with the state and the host municipality, “I hope they drive a hard bargain,” Verrengia said.

Mashantucket Pequot Chairman Rodney Butler and Mohegan Chairman Kevin Brown issued a joint statement following the vote, thanking committee members.

“Although it’s early in the process, we are encouraged by today’s vote, and the bi-partisan support of lawmakers. Working together, we have the opportunity to protect good paying jobs that allow thousands of people to provide for their families, and the tourism and entertainment industry that has brought economic prosperity to southeastern Connecticut.”

Other committee members with concerns, among them Rep. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, expressed worries over the strength of new casinos as an economic engine. The existing casinos also encompass hotels, restaurants, and music venues, he said, though the proposed new casinos are planned to be almost exclusively gaming facilities.

“I’ve had some level of skepticism when it comes to gaming to begin with, whether it is the way to the promised land,” Miner said. “I wish this bill were about trying to help the two existing destinations because they are exactly that, destinations. There are ferries that go there now, back and forth to Long Island. They may go to see a show, they may go there for all sorts of reasons. Providing another opportunity to sit at a crap[s] table is not going to get us where we want to go.”

Christine Stuart photo
Sen. Tim Larson (Christine Stuart photo)

Rep. Orange, who voted in favor of the measure, said increased opportunities to gamble should come with an increase in support for problem gamblers.

This governor’s budget did not provide enough money for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to address this issue, she said.

Rep. Terry Adams, D-Stamford, said the proposed casinos are intended “to target gamblers.”

“We’re looking to get people’s money before they drive too far,” he said. “The jobs at these three facilities don’t outweigh the cost and the message that we’re sending.”

Job creation should be the state’s primary focus, according Sen. Paul Formica, R- East Lyme. He noted, as did tribal leaders during a public hearing on the bill earlier this week, that the two existing casinos employ about 7,000 workers, each.

“We need a diverse economy,” Formica said. “These are two 7,000-job employers that we should be supporting.”

The results of a recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 75 percent of voters in Connecticut oppose the idea of more casinos.

“Voters think gambling in Connecticut is good for the state, but they don’t want more casinos,” Quinnipiac University Poll Director Douglas Schwartz said. “Three-quarters oppose more casinos in general and nearly 60 percent oppose specific legislation to allow two Native-American tribes to open new smaller casinos.”

The bill now heads to the Senate floor and will likely, according to Sen. Majority Leader Bob Duff, be referred to Planning and Development or the Finance, Revenue, and Bonding Committee.

Once a location for the first of the three proposed casinos is settled on, municipal public hearings must also be held, a selling point for Sen. Tim Larson, D-East Hartford.

“We also provide in here that the host town has to have a public hearing. This is a great opportunity for us to logically move this progression forward,” he said. “This is the largest casino operation in the world. This is our state, let’s be business friendly.”

The new casino is expected to create 1,500 construction jobs and after that 2,000 jobs. It’s unclear yet if those jobs will be union jobs, but the United Auto Workers union has teamed up with the tribes to support the legislation.

Christine Stuart contributed to this report.