Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie file photo
Mashantucket Pequot Chairman Rodney Butler and Mohegan Tribal Chairman Kevin Brown (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie file photo)

HARTFORD, CT — Chairmen from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal nations on Tuesday told the General Assembly’s Public Safety and Security Committee that the Connecticut legislature could approve construction of the Tribal Winds Casino before the federal government.

Two years ago, the lawmakers approved legislation that would allow the tribes to build a casino off tribal land after getting approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is part of the U.S. Interior Department.

“For two years we were told repeatedly our compact amendments would be approved by the Department of Interior,” Mohegan Tribal Chairman Kevin Brown told the committee.

The East Windsor casino was being built to compete with MGM’s Springfield casino, a few miles north of the Connecticut border.

Then two days before the federal approvals were ready to be inked, they were edited and the process was scuttled.

In a letter dated Sept. 15, 2017, Acting Assistant Secretary Michael Black wrote that approval was neither approved or denied. He wrote that the amendment was “premature and likely unnecessary.”

Interior’s inspector general, according to Politico, is investigating the department’s handling of the application after Connecticut lawmakers asked the internal watchdog to look into the matter.

Brown said he believes that MGM’s lobbying efforts are what caused the reversal in opinion. He said it was also telling that Black’s Sept. 15 letter was copied to two Nevada Senators rather than two Connecticut Senators.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has since approved the amendment to the Mohegan Tribal Nations compact with the state, and both chairmen remained confident they would do the same with the Mashantucket Pequots revenue sharing agreement.

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo
Sen. Dennis Bradley and Rep. Joe Verrengia, co-chair the committee (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie photo)

Rep. Joe Verrengia, D-West Hartford, said he’s concerned about Connecticut’s ability to continue to collect the state’s 25 percent share of slot revenue from the Foxwoods Resort and Mohegan Sun casinos if the federal government doesn’t approve the amendments to the gaming agreements.

“Regardless of what side you come down on the issue, what’s consistent with everyone I speak to about this is they don’t want to jeopardize that revenue,” Verrengia said.

Verrengia pointed to former Attorney General George Jepsen’s warnings about what could happen if Connecticut doesn’t get approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“We continue to believe that passing such legislation absent amendments to the Compacts and MOU’s poses serious risks to the State’s agreements with the Tribes,” Jepsen wrote in this 2017 letter to former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Brown and Butler insisted the state would continue to receive its share of the revenue.

Verrengia said he’s asked House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz to request a new legal opinion from Attorney General William Tong. Aresimowicz has not made a decision on whether to move forward with that request.

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said the state of Connecticut should move forward with a bill that allows the tribes to start building the Tribal Winds Casino in East Windsor.

Butler said they can start pouring the foundation as soon as the weather permits.

As far as revenue is concerned, they estimate that the new casino will provide about $70 million a year in new revenue to the state.

MGM Springfield told the Massachusetts Gaming Commission that it planned to bring in $418 million in annual gross gaming revenue in its first year, or $34.8 million per month. Instead, MGM has grossed less than $23 million in the three months since the grand opening when it did slightly better.

Connecticut expects, according to revenue estimates released Jan. 15, to receive $248.6 million in Indian gaming revenue from the two casinos in the current fiscal year ending June 30.

Brown said he doesn’t expect the Tribal Winds Casino to underperform the way MGM Springfield has thus far.

He said they see some cannibalization in the casino market, but they also see market growth and still expect to hit the $70 million revenue target in East Windsor.

While the tribes have been lobbying for a casino in East Windsor to compete with MGM Springfield, MGM has been lobbying for Connecticut to open its gaming to commercial entities so it can open a casino in Bridgeport.

In a statement Tuesday, MGM insisted that it’s time to move beyond the continued “back-and-forth” of the past few years and open the competitive bidding process.

“The vast majority of Connecticut residents support that approach,” MGM said in a statement. “That is the most effective way for policy makers to determine what is in the state’s best interest — for jobs, economic development and revenue to the state and local communities. What’s best for Connecticut should be driving the decision-making.”

Tribal chairmen speak to reporters at the LOB

Posted by on Tuesday, January 29, 2019