House Passes Bill that Requests New Casino Proposals

Legislation that could eventually lead to a new, $500 million casino in Connecticut narrowly cleared the House of Representatives on Friday, setting up a high-stakes showdown in the Senate and a battle between lawmakers from two corners of the state.

The bill passed on a 77-73 vote, with strong support from urban lawmakers from Bridgeport and New Haven who want a casino built in Bridgeport, while southeastern Connecticut legislators opposed it. They claim it puts the region’s two tribal casinos, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino, at risk, as well as the state’s share of slot machine revenue generated at those facilities.

It’s now up the Senate to act before the General Assembly adjourns on Wednesday at midnight. Its fate remains uncertain, however.

“We’re fighting. We’ve got some initial counts that are favorable. We’ve got a long way to go. Just like we had a long way to go in the House. But we’re fighting and the enthusiasm for the process is there,” said Uri Clinton, senior vice president and legal counsel for MGM Resorts, which has said it wants to open a casino complex in Bridgeport.

The two-part bill requires the commissioners of Consumer Protection and Economic and Community Development to develop and issue a request for proposals from casino developers. The responses, which would include everything from a market analysis to designs and a construction timeline, would be due by Jan. 1, 2019. The state agencies would evaluate the proposals and present them to the General Assembly for a possible vote, although one is not required under the legislation.

“We need the process to be played out. We need to gather the data and then we will have the information to make a decision,” said Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven.

But southeastern Connecticut lawmakers warned that the request would put Connecticut on track to risk its long-standing relationship and revenue sharing agreement with the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes. Connecticut receives 25 percent of the slot machine revenues in return for exclusive rights to certain forms of gambling. If a new casino is approved, the arrangement ends.

Groton Rep. Joe DelaCruz, a Democrat, likened the threat to a divorce after 25 years of marriage — but worse.

“We lose the kids, the house, the car and everything,” he said. “There is no middle ground here. If we break the compact, we lose $270 million the next day. That’s a fact.”

The bill’s supporters claim it doesn’t risk the arrangement because it doesn’t authorize a new casino. Rather, it was pitched as an opportunity to gain more information.

“I don’t think there’s one person in this chamber that wants to do something that would put that money at risk,” said Rep. Joe Verrrengia, D-West Hartford, a co-chairman of the legislative committee that handles gambling issues. “But as leaders, we need to look past today. We need to have the ability to say, ‘OK, this is what our gaming industry looks like today, but what’s it going to look like in the future?'”

MGM Resorts has been lobbying heavily for the bill. The casino giant has said it wants to build a “destination resort” in economically struggling Bridgeport that would create 2,000 jobs, 5,779 indirect jobs and $675 million in capital investment.

“When someone comes along with an offer like that, I think we should listen,” said Rep. Christopher Rosario, D-Bridgeport.

Opponents, however, question whether MGM is being sincere. Rep. Chris Davis, R-Ellington, suggested the casino company is trying to “delay, delay, delay” a casino the tribes plan to build in East Windsor to compete with MGM’s new casino that’s opening this summer in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts.

Republican Rep. Doug Dubitsky, of Chaplin, noted how he hasn’t seen lobbyists from other casino companies pushing for the casino request for proposals bill this session.

“Nobody is planning to build a casino in Bridgeport. Nobody. The numbers simply don’t work — not for the casino, not for MGM, not for the state,” he said. “This bill would simply delay the tribe’s East Windsor casino and the state will wind up losing millions of dollars.”

The General Assembly passed legislation last year that gave the tribes the initial go-ahead for that project, in hopes of protecting jobs at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods. But the project has been delayed for months because the Department of Interior has not signed off on amendments to the state’s revenue-sharing agreement for the East Windsor facility. The tribes are currently suing the federal agency over the delay.

At the request of Connecticut’s congressional delegation, the interior department’s inspector general has been investigating the agency’s handling of the tribe’s application since February and whether there has been any influence from MGM lobbyists.

Story by The News and Observer