Lawmakers Pick Home Team In Casino Battle; House Approves OTB Expansion
HARTFORD, CT — The House gave final passage to a bill Wednesday morning that will give the two tribes exclusivity over a new casino in East Windsor, before it passed a separate bill that included additional “sweeteners” and sent it to the state Senate.
The House gave final passage to the tribal exclusivity bill on a 103-46 vote. The House also passed the “sweetener” bill on a 77-72 vote at about 1:40 a.m. Wednesday, sending that legislation on to the Senate.
During the nearly two-hour debate that started at 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, there was an acknowledgement that no matter what happens the state of Connecticut will end up in court because it gave the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal nations exclusivity over gaming at a facility off tribal land. The two tribes already operate casinos on tribal land in southeastern Connecticut.
The tribes are also expected to make a $30 million payment to the state for the ability to operate the casino. The payment is to be divided up among Connecticut’s largest cities in order to win their support for the underlying bill.
The “sweetener” bill will expand the number of approved off-track betting facilities from 18 to 24. Further, the bill will create an entertainment commission and order the Department of Consumer Protection to create a regulatory structure for sports betting in case the federal ban against sports betting is lifted.
During debate on the tribal exclusivity bill, many lawmakers were still struggling with handing the tribes a casino deal when casino operators like MGM Resorts International had introduced the idea of opening the bidding process.
Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, who is a member of the Public Safety and Security Committee, said he’s “seen lobbying by fear” on both sides.
Regardless of whether the state goes with the tribes or a commercial casino operator through an open bidding process, there will be litigation, Fishbein said.
Following the vote, Uri Clinton, senior vice president and legal counsel for MGM Resorts International, who was watching the debate from the House gallery, promised to sue Connecticut.
“This is just the first chapter in a very long story,” Clinton said. “MGM and others were refused the opportunity to participate.” He said there are “tons of constitutional grounds to challenge.”
Rep. Joe Verrengia, D-West Hartford, said he can’t support the legislation because he believes in the prospect of an opening bidding process for a third casino, so that “the market will determine the value of the license.”
He said he’s not certain about the claims that it’s a jobs bill.
The tribes said they would lose jobs at the casinos in southeastern Connecticut if they didn’t head off traffic to a new $950 million MGM casino being built in Springfield, Mass.
The only reason Connecticut lawmakers are having this conversation here today is because the tribes didn’t win a license to operate a casino in Massachusetts, Verrengia said. He said he doesn’t believe it would be too hard to ask the tribes to compete for a license in Connecticut since the casino would not be on tribal land.
“I don’t believe it’s in the state’s best legal interests or financial interests,” Verrengia said.
Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, said since the tribes are a known entity in the state that’s why they didn’t ask for a licensing agreement.
Over the past 20 years, the two tribes have contributed about $7 billion to the state under a revenue sharing agreement. There are questions about whether a casino off tribal land would violate the compact that’s governed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The tribes say it won’t, but MGM has spent a lot of money to create doubt.
What was clear Wednesday morning was that as the home team the tribes were able to convince lawmakers to stick with a known commodity.
“There are families across the state breathing a sigh of relief tonight thanks to leaders in both chambers and from both parties,” Mohegan Tribal Council Chairman Kevin Brown said. “With this vote, we have all demonstrated a commitment to protecting the state of Connecticut and the good jobs of its residents.”
Rep. Chris Davis, R-East Windsor, said that while the tribes did everything the state asked them to do, he wonders whether a more open process would have helped the state avoid legal challenges.
He proposed an amendment that would put the siting decision back into the hands of East Windsor’s voters through a local referendum. The East Windsor Board of Selectmen already approved the casino location, which is the site of the former Showcase Cinemas off I-91, without a referendum.
Davis’ amendment failed on a 90-59 vote.
Following its defeat Davis, said he’s met with town officials in southeastern Connecticut impacted by the two casinos and he believes the facility will benefit the town of East Windsor. He voted in favor of the tribal bill.
The development agreement between the tribes and East Windsor includes a $3 million payment at least 15 months before the casino opens, plus $3 million a year on top of $5.5 million in annual property taxes.
Under the legislation, the East Windsor casino would pay a 25 percent tax on its slot machines and a 25 percent tax on its table games.