State lawmakers eager to find more revenue — or terrified at the thought of losing same — are considering letting the state’s two federally-recognized Indian tribes literally wander off their reservations and open “gaming” facilities elsewhere in Connecticut. On the face of it, this sounded like a good idea. After all, hardly anyone cares whether we take more money out of the pockets of those who can least afford it.
Not so fast, says my favorite state official, Attorney General George Jepsen. Allowing the tribes to build and operate more gambling facilities — not “gaming,” because that’s what it is, gambling — could open a Pandora’s box of litigation, expanded tribal recognitions, and even more gambling, Jepsen said.
Jepsen wasn’t certain of any of this because so much of it lies in uncharted territory, but he raised just enough red flags to give any reasonable person pause in the face of legislation that would allow the Mohegans and the Mashantucket Pequots to jointly open up to three new gambling facilities not far from the Massachusetts and New York borders.
The goal, of course, is to stanch the flow of gamblers from Connecticut to the spanking new $800 million MGM casino scheduled to be completed in 2017 in Springfield. The two tribes, along with tourism and economic development officials in southeastern Connecticut insist that jobs and the economic vitality of an entire region are at stake.
Perhaps, but Jepsen can’t concern himself with such things. His job as Connecticut’s chief civil law official is to protect the public interest and to serve as legal counsel to state agencies. In a letter to lawmakers and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Jepsen said that while he is “sympathetic to the desire to promote economic development,” (who wouldn’t be?) legislation that expands casino gambling outside the territories of the state’s two federally recognized tribes could invite legal challenges from tribes or entities that would like to open casinos in the Nutmeg State.
A rival tribe — perhaps the Schaghticokes in Kent — could claim a violation of the 14th Amendment, the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, because only the Mohegans and the Mashantucket Pequots would be allowed to run casinos outside their reservations, Jepsen warned.
If, as a result, another tribe were to open a casino in Connecticut, Jepsen said the state’s 25 percent share of the two casinos’ gross slot revenues would “cease if state law permitted any person other than the [two] Tribes to operate such games or other commercial casino games.”
So if the legislation passes, the state will itself be gambling. Lawmakers will bet that Jepsen’s concerns are unfounded and that the two Connecticut tribes will remain bound by a deal that netted the state almost $280 million in 2014, down from $344 million two years earlier.
So imagine the irony if the state loses hundreds of millions in revenue in a ham-handed attempt to protect the loss of said revenue. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. Bravo to Jepsen for doing the research and playing Sheriff Andy Taylor to the General Assembly’s Barney Fife.
According to the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts, the eastern Connecticut resorts could lose as much as 20 percent of their customers as Bay State rivals open over the next few years. Of course, that doesn’t include state taxes paid by casino-goers on sales, hotels, and gasoline.
I’m not sure whether the competitive threat from the MGM in Springfield is all it’s cracked up to be. Roughly 7 percent of the patrons of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun are Massachusetts residents, bringing an estimated $1 billion a year across the border.
But geographic logic suggests that eastern Connecticut casinos attract their Bay Staters mostly from the eastern part of that state, which is far more densely populated than western Massachusetts and far closer to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. Perhaps the greatest threat to the eastern Connecticut casinos will come not from Springfield, but from the planned $1.6 billion Wynn Resort casino in the Boston suburb of Everett.
And I’m still not sure what a casino on the border with western Massachusetts will accomplish. Will people heading to MGM Springfield from New Britain be persuaded by the signs for a cheesy mini-casino in Enfield or East Windsor and decide at the last minute that they don’t want to go the extra eight miles for the real thing?
This is what happens when the government becomes addicted to gambling. Like any gambler who sees his source of thrills drying up, the state will search frantically to preserve the cash flow, which is the very thing that thrills most lawmakers.
Now we are are reduced to keeping up with the Joneses. It’s a race to the bottom and, other than the gambling industry, there are no foreseeable winners. There will, however, be hundreds of thousands of losers. You can bet on it.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.
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