Connecticut’s unlikely history of casinos gets a new chapter

Former U.S. senator and governor Lowell P. Weicker at the swearing in of Gov. Malloy.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Former Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. at  the second inaugural of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who is confronted with a casino question similar to one faced by Weicker two decades ago.

Failing to slam the door on casino gambling in 1991, Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. cut the deal that both gave the industry a foundation and firmly capped its reach in Connecticut – until now.

Today, the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee holds a public hearing on what appears to be the strongest attempt in two decades to expand casino gambling off tribal lands.

Weicker, now 83 and dividing his time between Old Lyme and St. Croix, thinks it’s a terrible idea, even if the expansion is pitched as a way to preserve market share and existing casino jobs, not balance the budget.

“The hell with that. We need other kinds of jobs,” Weicker said in a telephone interview. “If you take a look at the dynamics of the state in terms of its personnel and its needs, I just think we need to adjust our priorities, so it doesn’t include more gambling.”

Weicker is a unique figure in the history of casino gambling in Connecticut. He came closest to banning it, only to be outflanked by an unlikely coalition of Catholic priests, PTAs and volunteer firefighters who found common cause with a tiny Indian tribe. Then Weicker created the framework under which two tribal casinos have thrived, while keeping rivals from Las Vegas at bay.

Now another governor, Dannel P. Malloy, has to decide how or if he wishes to shape a new deal with the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans, the operators of Foxwoods Resorts Casino and Mohegan Sun.

For the first time, the tribes are seeking permission to jointly expand off tribal lands. In 1993, when the Pequots negotiated an operating framework with Weicker, they promised $130 million for the next year’s budget.

The tribes so far have not promised the state riches, only a better chance at preserving jobs and its existing share of gambling revenues. Their initial ask: Permission to build a casino off I-91 near the Massachusetts line to intercept patrons on their way to MGM Springfield, which is due to open in 2017.

Just as the success of Foxwoods and, later, Mohegan Sun helped soften opposition to casinos in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York, competition in those states now is prompting Connecticut to consider expansion.

It is unlikely anyone foresaw decisions made in 1991 about a small tribe’s venture into gaming as setting New England on course to become a major casino destination.

“I don’t know if any of us thought about what might happen,” Weicker said. “Speaking for myself, I really didn’t care. I didn’t have one eye on Springfield or Massachusetts and one eye on New York and Rhode Island.”

He just knew he didn’t want a casino.

The legal opening for Foxwoods was threefold: the federal recognition of the Pequots as an active tribe; the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act; and a seemingly insignificant state law allowing charities to host gambling events.

The Indian gaming law allowed recognized tribes to offer on their reservations any gambling that was allowed by the laws of the state in which they resided.

In Connecticut’s case, that meant a law that allowed charities to raise about $80,000 annually through “Las Vegas nights” could permit the Pequots to open the first casino in the northeast outside Atlantic City.

Weicker’s predecessor, William A. O’Neill, refused to negotiate terms under which the Pequots could build a casino, but the tribe won a federal court decision that left the newly inaugurated Weicker with two choices: Negotiate or repeal the Las Vegas nights law.

He sought repeal.

The tribe’s lobbyists, Keith Stover and Charles Duffy, framed the issue as the state’s breaking faith with an Indian tribe that was fighting to come back from near-extinction.

“If the debate centered on the substantive question of whether the state should legalize the casino for the tribe, we would have very few votes,” Duffy recounted to writer Brett Duval Fromson for his book, Hitting the Jackpot. “The question had to be, ‘Would the state honor its word?’ ”

Weicker, a Republican-turned-independent, had no ready allies in the legislature, and his new administration also was struggling to close a massive deficit by winning approval of the state’s first broad-based tax on wages.

Complicating Weicker’s task, all the groups that used Las Vegas nights as charitable fundraisers, including Catholic churches and schools, volunteer fire departments and PTAs, sided with the Pequots.

The state Senate passed the bill, 18 to 17, with one absence, on May 9, 1991. On May 16, which happened to be Weicker’s 60th birthday, the House took up the measure.

Rep. Irving J. Stolberg, D-New Haven, a liberal who once was the House speaker, urged passage as a way keep to a powerful gambling industry at bay.

“For it to extend itself into one casino and then in all likelihood others would, ladies and gentlemen, change the nature of the State of Connecticut,” Stolberg said. “And I ask you to look forward and see whether a Connecticut, probably not like Las Vegas, probably not even like Atlantic City, but moving dramatically in those directions, is the Connecticut that you want our children to grow up in.”

Kevin Rennie, now a Hartford Courant columnist but then a Republican member of the House, minimized the problems and changes a tribal casino could bring a state that already had a lottery, jai alai and off-track betting.

“Do you believe that the destiny of our entire state, or even one part of it, hangs on our willingness to smite the Pequot Indians?” Rennie asked. “In a state that allows and promotes the Daily Number, Play Four, Instant Lottery in its many variations — including one currently available at the Legislative Office Building called Blackjack — LOTTO, off-track betting, jai alai, dog racing and casino nights, can anyone claim that one more addition to that list means the end of life as we know it, every virtue replaced by a vice?”

Rennie closed with a flourish appealing to legislators’ sense of history and fairness.

“In the 19th Century, which may seem like a long time ago, the trail of tears for the American Indian led to Oklahoma and its reservations, but today here in Connecticut it runs from the Senate to the House of Representatives, staining this building,” Rennie said. “Let it end here, and let it end today.”

The repeal bill failed, 84 to 62.

Weicker still would get the last word.

In January 1993, while Las Vegas casino owner Steve Wynn was lobbying for permission to build a casino in Bridgeport, Weicker stunned the state by announcing a deal with the Pequots.

He was allowing them to install slot machines, which they could not do without state permission. In return for exclusivity, the tribe promised to pay the state 25 percent of gross slots revenues, starting with an initial payment of $130 million and guaranteeing at least $100 million thereafter.

It was a masterstroke by Weicker and the tribe. For Wynn or anyone else to make a bid to 0pen a casino, they would have to guarantee to match or exceed the deal with the tribe.

Once the Mohegans won federal recognition, the Pequots agreed to allow the state to make them the same deal. The two casinos have paid the state $6.5 billion, with annual payments that peaked at $430 million and have fallen steadily as competitors opened in New York and Rhode Island.

The two tribal casinos, Mohegan Sun and the Pequots’ Foxwoods Resorts Casino, also have steadily lost jobs since their most successful year, 2006. Foxwoods’ employment is down from 12,800 to 7,558; Mohegan’s is down from 10,500 to 7,205.

For what it’s worth, the governor who set the stage for their success and helped them keep competition from the state says it is a mistake to allow expansion in reaction to new competition.

“Now look, you can have casinos in every damn state in the union. It may be their salvation,” Weicker said. “It doesn’t change my view that limited gambling in the state of Connecticut is okay, not as the main economic driver.”

The public will be heard, beginning at noon Tuesday in the Legislative Office Building.

 

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