HARTFORD, CT — (Updated 1:43 p.m.) The state Senate approved a bill early Wednesday morning that would pave the way for Connecticut’s two federally recognized tribes to build a casino in East Windsor. The bill passed on a 24-12 vote after more than two hours of debate.
The bill tries to minimize the risk to the state for its decision to give the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribal nations exclusivity over gaming in Connecticut. However, it’s fate in the House doesn’t look good.
The Senate bill requires the tribes to get permission from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to maintain the current 25 percent revenue sharing agreement with the state of Connecticut.
Under the legislation, the tribes would need to come back to the General Assembly following approval by the BIA and the governor in order to obtain the gaming license for the East Windsor facility, Sen. Tim Larson, D-East Hartford, said.
Many lawmakers expressed concern that Connecticut would lose its current revenue sharing agreement with the tribes if it allowed them to build a casino off tribal land. There was a concern that the Bureau of Indian Affairs would lower the state’s reimbursement. Some of the doubt about the revenue sharing deal was created by the lobbying efforts of MGM Resorts International.
The tribes say the East Windsor casino is being built to help capture convenience gamblers headed north to MGM’s new casino in Springfield, Mass.
MGM Resorts International has been lobbying lawmakers to open the bidding process and allow it to bid on building a casino in the southwestern portion of the state near the New York border. They said a casino in or around Bridgeport will generate more revenue and economic activity for the state than a casino in East Windsor, which is being built to compete with the one MGM is building in Springfield.
MGM’s contract with the city of Springfield prohibits it from opening up a casino within a 50-mile radius of the Springfield casino.
Uri Clinton, senior vice president and legal counsel for MGM Resorts International, watched the debate from the Senate gallery. He said the vote was disappointing, but it’s not the final word. He said there’s still legislation in the House that would allow for an open bidding process for a third casino.
“If the Senate bill were to ultimately become law, numerous national gaming operators — including MGM — would be precluded from offering a competitive bid for consideration,” Clinton said.
However, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s support for the tribal gaming bill at the end of last week may have killed any effort to get the House bill raised.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said he has many members who believe the open bidding process for a third casino “is the way to go” and “we shouldn’t be giving the exclusive rights to anyone.”
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said they haven’t caucused or vote counted the casino bill yet with their members. When they do he expects there will be “32 different opinions.”
What does that mean for the fate of the bill giving the two tribes exclusivity over gaming in Connecticut?
“We believe in the House that the exclusivity aspect of expanding gambling in the state of Connecticut is worth something,” Aresimowicz said. “We believe expanded gambling in Connecticut is worth something in the bidding process. The Senate didn’t think so. We respectfully disagree.”
Ritter said the bill that passed the Senate early Wednesday morning cannot pass the House as currently written.
But for many senators it wasn’t a bill about expanding gambling. It was a bill about creating jobs and saving existing casino jobs in southeastern Connecticut.
“This is a jobs bill at its core,” Larson said. “The Mohegans and Pequots have been excellent partners to our state and are the backbone of our tourism economy.”
Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said the two tribal casinos on tribal land in her district have “stabilized a region” and provided her communities with an opportunity for jobs at a time when many jobs were disappearing at Electric Boat.
“These jobs are good paying, middle class jobs,” Osten said. “This has been and always will be a jobs bill not just for southeastern Connecticut, but for the whole state.”
Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said he opposed expansion of casino gaming in Connecticut, especially in a town so near his district.
“I don’t believe this casino should be located in my neck of the woods,” Kissel said.
He said he also has serious legal concerns about the legislation. He said that some of those concerns have been assuaged by a letter from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but not all of them.
“There could be standing issues for MGM to challenge this,” Kissel said.
And even if it’s not MGM then maybe it’s another big casino operator like Steve Wynn.
“I see Equal Protection issues,” Kissel said. “I really feel that if this is fully litigated that this would be the Achilles heel of this entire process.”
He added that he doesn’t understand how the state can justify giving a specific benefit to the two tribes.
Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, said there is no guarantee this gamble will work out for the state. The state is “rolling the dice” when it comes to opening another casino because gambling expansion may not be the best bet for Connecticut.
Hwang opposes expanding gaming because of the social consequences of problem gambling.
There seemed to be a broad understanding that casino gaming has expanded in the northeast and with it the amount of money coming from the two casinos in southeastern Connecticut has also dwindled. The tribes argue that this is why they need to open the East Windsor casino, in order to attract more customers, including those heading north to MGM Resorts International casino in Springfield, Mass.
The East Windsor casino is expected to create 1,700 construction jobs and 1,700 casino facility operation jobs — 1,275 of which will be permanent, full-time positions.
Under the legislation, there would be a 25 percent tax on slot revenues and a 25 percent tax on table games; 15 percent of the tax on table games would be dedicated to Connecticut’s statewide tourism marketing account, while 10 percent would be returned to the state’s general fund.