Slot machines next door? Bill gives communities, voters no say on new casinos [Republican-American]

March 23, 2015


HARTFORD — If a new casino is proposed in your hometown, you and your neighbors may want to have a say on whether your community becomes the state’s next gambling venue.

Few development projects promise to reshape a community and affect its way of life as much as a casino that will draw droves of gamblers year-round and employ hundreds of workers from all over.

At this time, there is no provision for putting a proposed casino to a local referendum in legislation that would permit the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to jointly build and run as many as three new casinos off tribal lands.

The bill’s sponsors see no need to put casino projects to an up-or-down vote of the people. They say other provisions provide for the public to be heard and give local elected officials a final say, yea or nay.

“We assume that people who represent the town will reflect the opinion of the town,” said Senate President Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.

If this proves not to be the case, he said, he anticipates voters will register their disapproval when the next local election rolls around and possibly oust the offending officeholders.

“I don’t think everything needs to go through a referendum,” Senate Majority Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said.

Senate Democrats are leading the effort in the General Assembly to approve casino expansion.

The bill is being fast-tracked.

The legislation was announced on March 10 and officially published the following day. The Public Safety and Security Committee conducted a hearing on the bill last Tuesday, and the panel voted 15-8 two days later to report the measure out of committee.

There will be several more committee stops. Just how many has yet to be determined. Once the bill finishes making its committee rounds, the legislation will head first to the Senate and then the House.

Increasing competition for gambling and tourism dollars coming from New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island is being offered as justification for expanding casino gambling in Connecticut.

The most immediate threat to Connecticut’s two tribal casinos comes from the casino that MGM International Resorts is building over the state line in Springfield, Mass.

The MGM Springfield plans to break ground this month on an $800 million resort casino. It is expected to open in 2017.

In addition to the MGM Springfield, Massachusetts regulators have licensed a Wynn Resorts casino planned for town of Everett and a slots parlor in the community of Plainville. They are considering applicants for a third full-scale resort casino in southeastern Massachusetts.

In 2011, the state of Massachusetts passed a law that authorized the construction of three casinos and one slots parlor in different regions of the state.

Unlike the Connecticut legislation, the Massachusetts law requires the voters of a prospective host community to approve a casino project in a referendum.

Two years ago, voters in Springfield approved an agreement that city officials and MGM International Resorts negotiated, 58 percent to 42 percent. The turnout was just under 25 percent.

Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, believes voters in Connecticut should have the right to approve or reject a casino project in their communities.

“I absolutely believe we should do that,” said Hwang, an assistant GOP leader.

THE CONNECTICUT LEGISLATION leaves the final decision on a proposed casino project to the local legislative body of a prospective host community.

While no referendum is required, the casino expansion bill does give the public an opportunity to be heard on a casino proposal. A hearing must be conducted in a community ahead of any vote by a town meeting or local legislators.

To the bill’s sponsors, this is an adequate arrangement.

“It sends a very strong message about the fact we are not having the two tribes come in and say, ‘This is where we are doing it,’ and that’s it because it meets some sort of zoning requirements,” Duff said.

The Pequot and Mohegan tribes will have to make sure there is an acceptable level of comfort in the community, he said.

This does not add up to Hwang.

“It is kind of an issue of transparency and public input,” Hwang said.

He said the lack of a referendum requirement could discredit a local legislative body’s vote to approve a casino project in the eyes of voters.

“There are a lot of people who might feel their feelings and ideas are muted,” Hwang said.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities has yet to make its views known on the casino expansion bill. The statewide association represents 155 out of the state’s 169 towns and cities.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has reacted coolly to the idea of casino expansion. He opposed expanding casinos during last year’s election campaign, but he is now adopting a wait-and-see posture on expansion.

Malloy said he has not given much thought to how a community could register its support or opposition to proposed casino projects. He deferred to lawmakers on this question.

“Connecticut is not a big referendum state overall. I think that is a matter for the legislature,” he said. “Again, I’ve been kind of waiting to see if the legislature is actually serious about doing this, but I would have to say there would have to be some way for a community that is being asked to host to express its pleasure or displeasure with that.”