Pequots, Mohegans lobby together for expanded gambling

Foxwoods and Mohegan officials sit with their lobbyists in the Legislative Office Building cafeteria.

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Pequot and Mohegan officials sit with their lobbyists in the Legislative Office Building cafeteria.

Connecticut’s two tribal casinos are trying to gauge support at the General Assembly for an expansion of gambling to stem what a new study shows is the rapid loss of customers to out-of-state competition.

Does that mean a pitch for a new casino in the I-91 corridor of northern Connecticut, a market targeted by the coming casino in Springfield? Or a deal to add slots at some of the 15 existing off-track betting facilities?

Tribal leaders, who were at the Capitol again on Wednesday, aren’t saying.

“They hinted in that direction,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, who met last month with representatives of the Mohegan Sun casino.

Expanded gambling seemed a dead issue a month ago, but leaders of the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans have been systematically touching base with legislative and administration officials in recent weeks.

“The gaming industry never goes away,” said Rep. Stephen D. Dargan, D-West Haven, co-chairman of the Public Safety and Security Committee, which oversees legalized gambling. “It’s always an interesting topic.”

Dargan said he expected that his committee would approve some form of a gambling expansion bill by its deadline of March 19, buying time for a legislative leadership that has yet to commit to the issue.

“We’re talking about ways to preserve jobs,” said Rodney A. Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequots, owners of Foxwoods Resort Casino. Exactly how, he declined to say.

He traveled in tandem Wednesday with Kevin P. Brown, chairman of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority. They and their lobbyists met jointly with the Senate’s Democratic leadership.

“They are serious about doing something,” said former House Speaker James Amann, a lobbyist whose clients include the owner of Shoreline Star, a former dog track that is an OTB venue. “They have no choice. They are getting invaded from every corner.”

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, who told The Hartford Courant a month ago that there was no prospect of allowing slot machines outside the two existing casinos, acknowledged meeting Wednesday with the tribal leaders.

“I view them as a major employer in our state,” said Duff, who described legislative talks with the tribes as “about jobs and their business model.”

He declined to share further details of the conversation that Senate leaders had Wednesday with Butler, Brown, casino executives and their lobbyists. They  met Tuesday with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy while the governor was in eastern Connecticut, according to an administration spokesman.

Coincidentally, Wednesday marked the release of the Northeastern Casino Gaming Research Project’s update on the regional gambling industry. It says that Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun have seen employment and revenue shrink by more than 35 percent since their peak year of 2006.

Combined revenue of the two casinos fell from $3.2 billion to $1.9 billion over just eight years as slots parlors opened at Yonkers Raceway and Aqueduct in New York and Twin River Casino expanded in Rhode Island.

Spending at Foxwoods and Mohegan by residents of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York dropped by more than 40 percent, from $1.53 billion to $883 million from 2006 to 2014.

The study predicted that the loss of jobs and revenue will escalate once the MGM Springfield casino opens in 2017, less than a half-hour ride from Hartford on I-91.

The losses are borne by Connecticut as well as the two tribes. The state has been a silent partner in Foxwoods and the Mohegan Sun for 21 years, collecting a $6.5 billion share of slots revenue at two massive casinos in eastern Connecticut.

But the annual torrent of cash threatens to become a trickle: It has dropped from a high of $430 million in fiscal 2007 to a projected $260 million next year, with the expectation of falling below $200 million after MGM Springfield opens.

Under the terms of a compact with the state, the tribes effectively control the expansion of slot machines in Connecticut. In return for exclusivity, the tribes pay 25 percent of their slots revenue to the state.

Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman are scheduled to hold a press conference Thursday at Mohegan Sun regarding the casino’s new hotel.

Shrinking gambling revenues are another complication in a dire fiscal year, when the Malloy administration has proposed deep cuts in social services to balance the biennium budget that begins July 1.

No one is holding out the expansion of gambling as a quick source of new revenue; rather, the talks are focused on ways of halting or at least slowing the erosion of slots revenue in Connecticut.

Tribal leaders declined to talk about whether they are considering a new jointly run casino or a partnership with existing pari-mutuel facilities, such as the Bradley Teletheatre in Windsor Locks, Sports Haven in New Haven and Shoreline Star in Bridgeport.

“If the tribes decide to go on their own, there will be a huge fight,” said Amann, a lobbyist whose clients include the owner of Shoreline Star, but not the facility’s licensed operator, Sportech.

A lobbyist for Sportech, which holds the license to operate off-tracking betting at 15 facilities, including Shoreline Star, declined to comment.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said representatives of Foxwoods met with him last month with the apparent goal of “taking the temperature” of the legislature about expanded gambling.

Klarides said she is open to expanding gambling to protect Connecticut jobs.

“The question is how,” she said.

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