The special act giving exclusive rights to build a third casino to two federally-recognized Indian tribes would not violate any exclusivity arrangement they have in their gaming agreement with Connecticut or the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“Our view is that the Tribe’s existing exclusivity arrangement would not be affected by a new State-authorized casino that is jointly and exclusively owned by the Tribe and Mashantucket,” Acting Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Lawrence S. Roberts, wrote in separate letters to the chairmen of Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Tribes.
The tribes would have to seek an amendment to their compact with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in order to move forward with building a third casino in Connecticut.
The amendment the tribes are proposing would allow the two tribes to have different equity shares in the casino, but would not permit anyone except the two tribes from owning any piece of the casino.
Roberts cautioned, however, that the letter “should not be construed as, a preliminary decision or advisory opinion regarding compacts or procedures.” The tribes will still need to get formal approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and they will still need legislation from the Connecticut General Assembly to move forward, but they see Roberts’ letter as a positive first step.
The tribes will use this language as the basis for a more complete package they will send to the General Assembly next year, said Andrew Doba, a spokesman for MMCT Venture.
Mashantucket Pequot Chairman Rodney Butler said the return on investment in a new casino “would be better in another state or even another country, but it’s very important to us that we do right by the people of Connecticut. We are grateful to the BIA for this confirmation, and look forward to continuing our work with state leaders in the months ahead.”
The existing agreements were drafted in the 1990s, allowing the two federally recognized tribes exclusively to operate gaming facilities on their reservations in exchange for 25 percent of their slot machine revenue. Over more than two decades, the tribes have contributed more than $7 billion to the state.
“Our tribes have called this land home long before it was named Connecticut, and we refuse to sit back and watch a casino company from Las Vegas take our jobs and revenue,” Kevin Brown, chairman of the Mohegan Tribe, said.
Brown is referring to MGM Resorts International, which is building a casino in Springfield, Mass., just over the Connecticut line.
“This confirmation from the BIA is an important step in the process, and we want to thank everyone for their work,” Brown said.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the Public Safety and Security Committee that oversees gambling and related matters in the state conceded this week that legislative action on a bill to build a third casino in “is probably be a year away.”
Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, said a number of factors, including the preoccupation legislators face with the state’s budget crisis, “make it unlikely” that casino expansion will be addressed in the remaining days of the legislative session.
Nor is it likely, Dargan added, that casino measures would be discussed when and if the General Assembly is called back into special session after its mandatory May 4 adjournment.
“Any special session is likely to focus solely on the budget,” Dargan said.
Whatever action the legislature takes, if any, on building a third casino in the state, it still faces legal hurdles.
MGM Resorts International and the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation have filed a joint lawsuit against the state in reference to Special Act 15-7.
The special act gives the exclusive right to build a third casino to MMCT Venture LLC, the joint business venture created by the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegan Tribe.
“Unfortunately these legal issues need to be remediated,” Dargan said. “Building a third casino in Connecticut is still a fluid idea that needs support. Now, may just not be the right time.”
MGM’s executive vice president said no one should rely too much on the letter from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“MMCT asked a very carefully, narrowly tailored question in order to receive a very carefully worded answer, and the BIA even goes so far as to basically say don’t rely too heavily on the answer we’re giving you,” Alan Feldman, MGM’s executive vice president, said. “There are many more questions that should have been asked, but weren’t because MMCT didn’t really want anyone – including elected officials and the general public – to know the answers.”
Feldman said they didn’t ask the BIA to address the constitutional issues raised last April by Attorney General George Jepsen.
“Those questions remain unanswered by anyone—not MMCT, not the BIA,” Feldman said.