Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Sen. Tim Larson (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — State Sen. Tim Larson, who co-chairs the Public Safety and Security Committee and represents East Windsor, said he was surprised when Rep. Jeff Berger, D-Waterbury, asked for legislation to consider competitive bidding for another casino get added to the agenda.

Thursday was the last day the committee was able to raise concepts to be drafted as legislation and the concept wasn’t on the agenda because the co-chairs of the committee couldn’t agree to bring it forward.

In a surprise move by rank-and-file lawmakers, Berger asked for the committee to add the item to the agenda since none of the bills from the New Haven and Bridgeport delegation to expand gaming made the list.

Larson objected to opening the agenda and adding the item, but he eventually agreed to allow the committee to vote to open the agenda and then add the item. The committee ended up agreeing to open the agenda and draft the legislation by a vote of 18-6.

“When you come after my district specifically I get a little offended by that,” Larson said.

He said the three bills some members of the committee wanted to raise would eliminate construction of the East Windsor casino, which the legislature approved last year. At the same time as it would allow MGM Resorts International, which is building a casino in Springfield, Mass. to potentially bid for the states first commercial casino in Bridgeport.

The East Windsor casino was proposed by the joint tribal venture to head off traffic to the MGM casino in Springfield.

Sen. Ed Gomes, D-Bridgeport, said it’s not an issue about East Windsor or Bridgeport, “it’s about being fair and having a public hearing and have everything come out.”

Rep. Kevin Skulczyck, R-Griswold, said he recalls that districts who felt slighted by the decision to approve a casino in East Windsor may have gotten additional money for their districts. He said if they’re going to open the debate again then the cities should give the money back to the state.

“We’ve already gone here. We’ve made these deals,” Skulczyck said.

Rep. Joe Verrengia, D-West Hartford, felt the debate on whether to open a commercial casino in Connecticut should go forward this year because things have changed.

“The legal landscape has changed,” Verrengia said. “We were led to believe at the time that an approval from the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] was imminent that the tribes would be up and running and build through litigation, which is not the case.” ‘

Connecticut’s two federally recognized tribes, the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegan Tribal Nation, have been waiting for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to agreement to amendments in their existing compact with the state. The state has since sued the U.S. Interior Department in order to get an answer.

The U.S. Department of Interior has refused to take action on the amendments to the tribal gaming compact submitted last summer. It’s argued in court documents that there’s no timeline that applies because the compact the Mashantucket Pequots have with Connecticut was submitted by a mediator.

Larson said he doesn’t believe anything as changed since last year. He said the tribes are planning to demolish the old Showcase Cinemas off I-91 in East Windsor before the end of the month.

“They’re advancing their cause,” Larson said. “They’re going to knock down the building at the end of the month.”

While the tribal casino in East Windsor has gotten bogged down in court, MGM and its lobbyists have continued to work on getting legislators to open up the bidding process.

At stake is the slot revenue the two tribes share with the state of Connecticut. If the tribes, which operate the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort casinos no longer have the exclusive right to gaming in Connecticut, those revenues disappear.

The bill being proposed by the Bridgeport and New Haven delegations would establish the first step in a two-step, competitive process that would direct the Commissioners of Consumer Protection and Economic and Community Development to solicit responses to an RFP for a proposed commercial casino gaming facility; evaluate the responses; and select a single, qualified responder for the legislature to consider.

However, the concept Berger introduced Thursday was vague. It called for the concept of commercial gaming to be drafted as legislation.

Lawmakers who are supporting the concept said it would not jeopardize the current revenue streams from the tribal compacts because no license will be issued to a new casino operator without additional and independent legislative action.

“The decision to move forward to a public hearing on the competitive process bill is clearly in the public interest,” Uri Clinton, senior vice president and general legal counsel for MGM Resorts said following the vote. “The RFP process would establish a competitive, open and transparent process, much the same as that which the Mohegan Tribe and MGM, and others, competed in four years ago in Massachusetts.”

The lawmakers on the committee who have sided with the tribes during the casino debate felt the issue has been resolved.

“I think that it’s not so much about the issue at this point that it’s about the process,” Verrengia said.

He added: “The New Haven and the Bridgeport delegation felt strong enough that they wanted to open the agenda to have a public hearing.”

Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim said he appreciates the committee’s decision to move forward with a public hearing.

“Surely, an open, competitive gaming process that has the potential to bring a $700 million casino to Bridgeport, adding 7,000 jobs to the Bridgeport-New Haven region and contributing more than $300 Million a year in gaming revenue to the State of Connecticut is worthy of a public hearing and public consideration,” Ganim said. “We look forward to a robust, transparent debate on the future of gaming in Connecticut.”

Others on the committee disagreed and felt the committee didn’t have time to debate the issue again.

The Public Safety and Security Committee’s deadlines to forward legislation to the House or the Senate is March 20.