Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Rodney Butler and Kevin Brown (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — Connecticut’s tribal chairmen believe momentum for an East Windsor casino is on their side. But slowing their progress is a House bill that would open the bidding process for a third Connecticut casino to all operators, and House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz says it will likely be part of a budget deal.

“We have momentum now,” Mohegan Tribal Chairman Kevin Brown said, referring to the Finance Committee’s decision not to move forward with legislation that would open the bidding process to all casino operators.

However, the bill was a duplicate of another bill already approved by the Public Safety and Security Committee, which is moving forward.

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

MGM Resorts International, which is prohibited from opening up a casino within 50 miles of the Springfield location, has been advocating for an open bidding process. Economists hired by MGM have said the Fairfield County region would be a more lucrative place for a casino because it would leverage the New York market.

Brown said a lot of people are trying to leverage the conversation and highlight the uncertainties and the risk associated with moving forward with a third casino, and they’re not focusing on the certainty that if the tribes build the casino there is certainty that the “current revenue stream and then some from the new casino will remain in the state of Connecticut.”

Surrounded by two busloads of their employees, the two tribal chairmen said they will continue to be a presence at the state Capitol until they get a vote on legislation to allow them to move forward.

Once they get the vote, they said they can go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and get an opinion about whether it would violate the current revenue sharing agreement they have with Connecticut for the two tribal casinos.

But in order for all of that to happen the “legislation has to happen now,” Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Chairman Rodney Butler said.

Uri Clinton, senior vice president and legal counsel for MGM Resorts International, said the only way to offset the threat to the current tribal revenue stream is an open, competitive process.

“A competitive process where every operator, including the tribes, can put their best option on the table. The state can then choose how they maximize jobs, maximize revenues,” Clinton said.

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, House Majority Leader Matt Ritter and Rep. Caroline Simmons (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen opined on March 13 that there was a “not insubstantial” risk to giving the two tribes the exclusive right to operate a casino off tribal land.

In the 8-page opinion, Jepsen pointed out that there is an increased likelihood if the state was taken to court, the court would decide against the tribes on constitutional questions about equal protection and the Commerce Clause.

Clinton said there’s nothing the tribes can do to counter that argument.

Brown has said they will be able to get over the constitutional hurdle because “there is an absolute public good here the state is taking into account in making this decision.”

He said losing more than 9,000 jobs and any revenue, as a result of gaming losses, is one of the arguments that can be made in favor of allowing the tribes to move forward.

But Aresimowicz said Wednesday that he doesn’t believe the casino bills will get an up or down vote because it will likely be part of the budget process.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said Jepsen’s opinion still presents the General Assembly with legal problems and the possibility they would lose the Commerce Clause argument in federal court.

There’s also the issue of votes. Aresimowicz said the Bridgeport delegation is pushing hard to open up the bidding process so they can get a casino in Bridgeport.

“That’s a substantial block of votes that the majority leader and I have to count on when it comes to a budget,” Aresimowicz said. “I think it will work its way out through the budget process.”

The House has not caucused or counted votes for either of the bills.

“I think the casino itself will be part of the budget solution,” Aresimowicz said.