Casino Bill Squeaks Through The House
HARTFORD, CT — After sleeping on it, the House resumed debate and the voted 77-73 to pass a bill that contemplates casino expansion in Connecticut.
The Bridgeport and New Haven delegations, which on this issue also included legislators from surrounding towns and together totaled 15 members, were adamant about getting a vote on the legislation.
“I can’t return home without getting a vote on this,” Rep. Chris Rosario, D-Bridgeport, said.
Likewise, southeastern Connecticut lawmakers are concerned a Bridgeport casino would cannibalize jobs at the two tribal casinos. Currently, the two federally recognized tribal nations, which run the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos, have had exclusivity over gaming in Connecticut for 25 years. As part of that exclusivity they give the state a share of their slot revenues, which are also in jeopardy, according to some lawmakers.
The bill pits one part of the state and their legislative delegation against another.
Rep. Joe Verrengia, D-West Hartford, said the legislation seeks to determine the value of a commercial casino license and it tries to determine the sincerity and the willingness of casino operators to invest in Connecticut.
“Up until now there’s been no way to judge what they’ve been saying and whether they are truly interested in investing in Connecticut,” Verrengia said of MGM Resorts, which has proposed building a casino in Bridgeport. “I believe we need a mechanism in place to put those words and money where their mouth is.”
MGM Resorts International is opening a casino right over the border in Springfield, Massachusetts. Last year, the legislature agreed to allow the tribes to build a casino in East Windsor to head off traffic to the Springfield casino. The construction of that casino has been delayed by the lack of a decision from the U.S. Interior Department on the impact on the revenue sharing agreements. The tribes and the state have sued the federal government to get a decision.
“I believe in letting the marketplace determine the value and interest of casino gaming in Connecticut,” Verrengia said. “The gaming landscape in Connecticut is changing whether we like it or not. It’s changing because of the competition around us.”
Verrengia said a Springfield casino will bring tribal revenue sharing from $270 million a year to $190 million a year.
He said that doesn’t contemplate what a Boston casino would mean for Connecticut’s marketplace.
“Who’s looking out for the state of Connecticut?“ Verrengia said.
He said the legislation does not run afoul of the revenue sharing agreements the state has with the tribes.
Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, said they want all communities to grow and currently the tribes employ more than 11,000 people at their casinos.
“Those jobs are putting food on the tables of Connecticut families,” she said.
There’s also the fiscal argument.
Rep. Chris Soto, D-New London, said the legislation puts in jeopardy the current revenue sharing agreements the state has with the two tribal nations. The state receives about $270 million from the two tribes as part of a 25-percent slot revenue sharing agreement.
He said the proposed legislation is incomplete because it doesn’t account for possibly violating the revenue sharing agreement and it doesn’t include a timeline.
Soto, whose district is near the two southeastern casinos, said if the request for proposals went out and then at some point a casino would be authorized, he said the second step in the process “as we know would violate that compact.” He said he doesn’t agree with the second step of the process.
Soto said there’s no mitigation plan for what happens if the second step of the process goes forward and violates the revenue sharing agreement.
Rep. Kevin Skulczyck, R-Griswold, said he has concerns about what would happen with the tribal revenue if the legislature passes this bill.
“I’m fighting for the home team,” Skulczyck said referring to the tribes.
Rep. Ezequiel Santiago, D-Bridgeport, said the tribes could bid on a new casino.
“Why are they so afraid of an open and fair process?” Santiago said.
Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, said she doesn’t know why they are going through the open process if in the end they are going to award this to the tribes.
Rep. Chris Davis, R-East Windsor, said Connecticut has a “unique” relationship with the tribes and he doesn’t believe the legislation is necessary.
Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, said the legislation will help find out if MGM really is the only player out there or if there’s someone else interested.
“It gives us a full list,” Stafstrom said.
Uri Clinton, senior vice president and legal counsel for MGM Resorts, said that he knows there are lawmakers on both sides of this issue who feel passionately about it, but he believes the logic of an open process will win the day. He said they are grateful it passed the House and they are working to get it passed in the Senate.
MGM believes the tribes will ultimately bid on a casino if the open RFP process becomes law.
In order for that to happen it has to pass the Senate and receive the governor’s signature.
Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said she doesn’t decide which bills are called in the Senate, but if it is called she said she would filibuster and “talk for 25 hours” until the session adjourned.
“I find that this is disrespectful to two of the largest businesses in this state,” Osten said, referring to the two tribes. “I’m disappointed we are at this point. At no point has anyone who has supported this bill asked me for a meeting to discuss their concerns.”
Sen. Tim Larson, D-East Hartford, who co-chairs the Public Safety Committee, said it’s completely disrespectful to try to raise this issue with no time left in the legislative session and several other important issues on the line.