Senate passes revamped Connecticut casino bill [Associated Press]

May 22, 2015

Associated Press Story

Published: May 20, 2015

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – State senators voted Wednesday night to create a two-step process for possibly opening a new tribal casino in northern Connecticut to help blunt growing, out-of-state gambling competition, especially from neighboring Massachusetts.

Supporters of the bill said the legislation shows Connecticut is willing to fight to save thousands of existing casino jobs at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casinos in southeastern Connecticut. Senate President Martin Looney said the bill doesn’t guarantee a new casino will be built. Rather, he said it provides a path for the tribes to follow to possibly open one jointly-owned satellite facility.

But opponents voiced concern about the effects of more gambling in Connecticut. Others are worried about the potential constitutionality problems that Attorney General George Jepsen had raised with the original bill, which had authorized the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to open up to three jointly-run casinos to combat out-of-state gambling competition.

The bill passed on a bipartisan vote of 20-16. It moves to the House of Representatives for consideration.

The two tribal chairmen issued a joint statement “on behalf of thousands of employees whose jobs are at risk from gaming competition at the state borders,” thanking the Senate for Wednesday’s vote. They vowed to work toward final passage and work with Jepsen to protect the state’s interests as well as the casino jobs.

The latest version of the legislation, revealed Monday, creates a two-step process where the tribes would issue a request for proposals to municipalities interested in hosting only one satellite casino. That RFP would be posted on the state Department of Consumer Protection website.

Sen. Tim Larson, D-East Hartford, said the tribes would have to report to the state monthly on their progress with the project. Any development agreement reached between the tribes and the community would have to be reviewed by the state Attorney General to make sure it doesn’t conflict with Connecticut’s existing compact with the tribes, which provides the state with hundreds of millions of dollars in slot machine revenues.

Ultimately, a new casino could not operate until the General Assembly amends state law to allow casino gambling. The existing two casinos are located on sovereign tribal land.

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who helped negotiate the retooled bill, said the legislation establishes a framework for the tribes and the state, who will spend the coming months working on the next steps needed to establish the new casino. It would most likely be in northern Connecticut, along the Interstate 91 corridor, outside of Springfield, Massachusetts, where a MGM Resorts casino is planned.

Osten said passage of the bill also would show that Connecticut is serious about protecting its casino industry.

“It sends a message out to Springfield that we’re interested in establishing something that would save the jobs here in Connecticut and it allows us to iron out the kinks that might be out there,” she said. “I’m happy that we’re actually making cognitive choices on jobs.”

A recent consultant’s report estimated 5,800 jobs will be lost at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun by the end of the decade.

But Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, warned the legislation marks “a major fundamental shift” in gambling in Connecticut, with the state entering into an agreement with a tribal entity to possibly authorize gambling on non-reservation land.

“We are creating a potential Pandora’s box we cannot close,” he said.

Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, who raised concerns about how a new casino in northern Connecticut would “cannibalize” the 400 jobs at existing pari-mutuel venues owned by Sportech, questioned whether Connecticut can regain the “gambling dollar” it used to enjoy given the competition.

“We had a head start and we rode it as long and as hard as we could,” he said. “Those days are gone.”

Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said he understands the concerns of his colleagues, but stressed the importance of protecting the jobs “that are under siege from competition around New England.”

Jepsen has said the original bill could lead to legal challenges because it would allow only the tribes to open another casino, could make it easier for other Connecticut tribes who win federal recognition to open casinos and ultimately risk the state’s financial arrangement with the tribes. Connecticut receives 25 percent of the slot machine revenues at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.