Sen. Kissel: Casino Expansion Proposal “Raises a Great Deal of Questions” (Journal Inquirer)

March 11, 2015

Dems bet on casinos
By Mike Savino
Journal Inquirer
Posted: Wednesday, March 11, 2015

HARTFORD — Top Senate Democrats on Tuesday announced a proposal that would allow the state’s two tribal casinos to open a facility between Hartford and the Massachusetts border in hopes of overcoming competition in Springfield.

The lawmakers said the proposal would allow the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to open as many as three facilities in the coming years to address competition throughout the Northeast.

But officials from each tribe said Tuesday their primary focus is to try to limit the potential loss of revenue due to the MGM casino in Springfield, which is scheduled to open in 2½ years.

“Clearly because of MGM being five miles over the border, we are somewhat laser focused on that competition,” said Kevin Brown, Mohegan’s tribal chairman. “However I appreciate the language that’s been introduced. The flexibility to have three means that we can be a little more open to all of the competition that we face as New York gets its two extra licenses in southeastern New York up and running.”

Lawmakers agreed on the need to address MGM Springfield’s lure to Hartford-area visitors, as Senate Majority Leader Robert Duff, D-Norwalk, said the casino plans to target the northern part of the state with bus service.

And Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, whose district includes a pari-mutuel that stood to gain video slots in a bill that Duff killed, made the case for north-central Connecticut being the top priority.

“Since the primary threat at this point is coming from Springfield, and it’s so close to our border north of Hartford, that it’s critically important to look first for having a facility” there to compete, Looney said.

Tuesday’s announcement comes just a month after Duff said he wouldn’t let the Senate vote on a bill to allow video gaming at pari-mutuels in Windsor Locks, New Haven, and Bridgeport, killing it before it left committee.

Duff, whose position entails working with Looney to set the Senate’s agenda, said he was concerned the video gaming bill would violate the state’s compact with the two tribes, which provides the state 25 percent of slot revenue.

He said Tuesday that revenue at both the Mohegan Sun and Mashantucket Pequot’s Foxwoods casinos have significantly declined in recent years, causing the state’s cut to drop from a peak of $431 million in 2006-07 to just $236 million.

Duff attributed that to gaming facilities in nearby states.

Looney said the legislature will need to negotiate a new compact for additional casinos, but he made the argument for a larger cut from the casinos because they will not be built on tribal land, where the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan councils have sovereignty.

“This would be different in its generation and different in its organization because it would not be on tribal land,” Looney said, adding the new casinos likely would operate under different rules.

Remaining profitable

But lawmakers said they also were concerned about the loss of jobs. Sen. Catherine A. Osten, D-Sprague, whose district includes the towns that host both casinos, said eastern Connecticut has struggled to generate jobs.

“For me, this is about jobs all day long — jobs each day, jobs every day,” she said.

Osten also referenced Mohegan Sun’s announcement March 5 that it would build a 400-room, $120 million hotel, which she said would create 1,500 construction jobs and 400 full-time positions.

Brown said he has had to cut his staff at the Mohegan Sun to remain profitable as gaming has expanded across the northeast.

Officials from the two tribes said they haven’t yet picked a site for a casino north of Hartford, but Duff said a town would need to agree to host the facility.

Sen. Timothy D. Larson, D-East Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee, said the town also would need to hold a public hearing on the plan.

Larson’s committee will hold a public hearing March 17 on the proposed legislation, which was submitted Tuesday after a press conference.

“This is important, important legislation, and, frankly, simply a logical step for us to pursue, a next step in this transition,” Larson said.

Tuesday’s announcement drew a combination of support and intrigue from many lawmakers and municipal leaders.

“Other than in Windsor Locks, I really have not heard from folks in north-central Connecticut who want casinos here,” said Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, who sat on a task force that recommended the state expand video gaming to the pari-mutuels.

“The proposal raises a great deal of questions,” he added, especially questions about whether the proposal is really a ploy to expand gaming to Bridgeport.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said she was “on the record as being open to conversations regarding gambling expansion in Connecticut and remains so.” She said she hopes gambling expansion will create jobs.

Rep. David Alexander, D-Enfield, also a member of the task force, said he wanted to see detailed plans for a casino before celebrating, but he is “happy the tribes are involved.”

Although Interstate 91 runs through Enfield for roughly five miles, Alexander questioned whether the two tribal councils could find an appropriate spot in his town.

Mayor Scott R. Kaupin raised a similar concern, saying Enfield already sees heavy traffic from its shopping areas and the MGM Springfield casino likely will mean more. He said he is worried that the increased traffic will mean more crime.

“It’s a big unknown right now, but we have concerns,” he said, adding he would wait for a proposal before taking a stance.

Rep. Peggy Sayers, D-Windsor Locks, meanwhile, said she proposed the now-dead video gaming bill and is “very happy with this because my intention always was to get the discussion, that everybody needs to be at the table, that we shouldn’t sit back and let this happen, but we need to proactively do something to address” out-of-state competition.

She also mentioned the new bill’s requirement that a host town receive compensation, and said that “if this will help my town then I’ll fight very hard for it to be there.”

Sayers also said that she believes Windsor Locks would be interested in talking with tribal leaders, citing First Selectman Steven Wawruck’s written testimony in support of her bill.

Wawruck couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

Windsor Town Manager Peter Souza, meanwhile, said he wanted to see the legislation and a proposal from the tribal councils before taking a stance.

“Certainly there are a lot of considerations to take into account,” Souza said, adding that town leaders haven’t had any discussions about a possible casino.