Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Sen. Tim Larson and Rep. Joe Verrengia, co-chair the Public Safety and Security Committee meeting (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — Members of the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee didn’t necessarily say how they felt about the two bills to expand casino gaming, but they forwarded them onto the House and Senate for more debate.

One bill would give Connecticut’s two federally recognized tribes the exclusive right to open a casino off tribal land in East Windsor. Another would open up the bidding process for a third casino to all potential bidders.

Rep. Joe Verrengia, D-West Hartford, said the issue is “complex and has potentially profound financial ramifications for the state of Connecticut,” so he’s happy the committee decided to continue the conversation.

“At the end of the day I think that conversation is deserving,” Verrengia said.

At least two lawmakers said they were against casino expansion in the state, but they voted in favor of both bills.

Sen. Tony Guglielmo, R-Stafford Springs, said he’s against gaming, but believes the two bills should not die in committee and all lawmakers should have an opportunity to vote on them. Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, said he’s personally against expanding gaming, but he’s uncertain about the budget implications and voted in favor of the bills in order to give the various scenarios time to play out.

“It’s a much bigger issue than the Public Safety Committee,” Rep. Linda Orange, D-Colchester, said.

A bill to give the tribes the ability to move forward with a casino in East Windsor passed 20-5 during the committee meeting.

But not every lawmaker agreed the conversation should continue.

Rep. Daniel Rovero, D-Killingly, said he voted against both bills because the state could lose the $260 million it currently receives as part of a revenue sharing agreement with the tribes.

“So I don’t want to take a chance of losing $260 million for a chance that we might gain $30 million,” Rovero said. “I don’t want to take that chance. If I did, I’d be at the casinos more often.”

Rovero said he was also upset that the town of East Windsor didn’t hold a townwide referendum on hosting a casino.

The other bill which would open up the bidding process was revised to include a townwide referendum as a requirement for locating a third casino. The new language also included a requirement the casino operator pay the host community not less than $8 million and a capital investment piece that the casino operator would agree to spend not less than $300 million for a new casino. It would also have to demonstrate the ability to pay a licensing fee of not less than $250 million and give the state 35 percent of the revenue from video slot machines and a minimum of 10 percent of gross revenue from the operation of other games. There would also be a $5 million application fee, which would be refunded if the operator didn’t get the bid or the state decided not to approve a gaming license.

The Department of Consumer Protection would be responsible for drafting the request for proposals for a commercial casino, which would go out to bid in January 2018.

Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said it’s been said many times there’s no way to compare the two bills and their financial impact on the state.

However, “I am in favor of an open process,” Fishbein said.

The freshman lawmaker said he was elected to ferret out the good ideas from the bad ideas and let the bad ideas die in committee. He said he doesn’t believe if they open up casino gaming anyone would look at the present location as the best location for a casino.

The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Tribal Nation, have said East Windsor is the best location to stop potential gamblers from heading further north to a Springfield, Mass. casino being built by MGM Resorts International.

MGM Resorts International, which is not allowed to open up a casino within 50 miles of the Springfield location, has been advocating for an open process. It filed a lawsuit against the state two years ago when it allowed the two tribes to form MMCT Venture, the joint tribal business organization. It also has spent money lobbying lawmakers and running ads encouraging the state to open the bidding process for a third casino.

“Many people are promising many things this year,” Mohegan Tribal Council Chairman Kevin Brown said Wednesday after the vote. “What we are promising is real – it’s founded on an actual track record of partnership with both the state and every city and town in Connecticut, one we hope to continue in good standing for generations to come. We thank the committee for their vote today.”

Sen. Edwin Gomes, D-Bridgeport, said he’s inclined to go with the “home boys,” a reference to the tribes, but he voted in favor of both Wednesday to get them out of committee.

The bill to open the bidding process passed 21-4 during the committee meeting.

Uri Clinton, senior vice president and legal counsel for MGM, said the committee’s decision to pass a bill opening up the bidding process “reflects the realization that it offers Connecticut the best way to achieve the greatest reward with the least risk.”

He said a “market-driven competitive bidding process” will generate more revenue for the state.