Strategic retreat: No final casino vote until 2016

A craps table in the Casino of the Earth at Mohegan Sun.

COURTESY OF MOHEGAN SUN

A craps table in the Casino of the Earth at Mohegan Sun.

Rather than authorize immediate construction of Connecticut’s first casino outside tribal lands, the state Senate is set to vote on a bill creating a complex approval process requiring passage of a second law next year.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said the Senate could vote as soon as Tuesday on a measure that would start Connecticut on a path toward a new casino to compete with a gambling resort under construction in Springfield.

The revisions fall short of the quick and certain path to a new casino sought by the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to preserve market share in the face of competition in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York.

The bill would allow the tribes to open negotiations with municipalities interested in hosting a casino, but final authorization would require approval by the General Assembly in 2016.

“It became clear it had to be more of a two-step process,” Duff told The Mirror. “It couldn’t be done in one bill.”

A casino bill this year became a long shot after Attorney General George Jepsen raised a litany of legal questions that Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, says remain an obstacle to passage.

“They’re still a problem,” Fasano said Tuesday of the issues raised by Jepsen.

The tribes put a positive spin on the prospect of at least an initial step toward the expansion of casino gambling, which they say is crucial to preserving jobs and revenue in Connecticut.

“Our goal from the outset has been to protect the 9,300 jobs and revenue that will be lost to competition on Connecticut’s borders, and we believe this bill, if approved, will give the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot Tribes the ability to begin to take action to do so,” said Patty McQueen, a spokeswoman for the tribes.

The new two-step approach was first reported by the Associated Press.

The tribes, whose Foxwoods Resorts Casino and Mohegan Sun in eastern Connecticut are the largest casinos in North America, approached legislative leaders in February and March to gauge support for expanded gambling.

The two tribal casinos have steadily lost revenue and 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.

In a press conference March 10, Senate leaders announced legislation that would authorize three casinos, each geared to capturing Connecticut gamblers heading out of state on I-91 north to Massachusetts and  I-84 west and I-95 south to New York.

But their main target always was MGM Springfield, which broke ground two weeks later — and Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, told The Mirror a month ago that passage of a three-casino bill was unlikely.

Legislators were nudged toward an even more cautious approach April 15, when  Jepsen warned that legislation giving the tribes exclusive rights to a new casino was itself a gamble, potentially endangering the current profit-sharing deal with the tribes and exposing the state to claims of illegal favoritism.

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

CTMIRROR.ORG

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

His memo addressed two main issues: The potential impact on the state’s existing tribal compacts, which allow slots at the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resorts Casino in return for 25 percent of gross slot revenues; and what would happen should another tribe win federal recognition in Connecticut.

Duff said he expects the revised legislation to pass the Senate with bipartisan support, but Fasano said no casino bill should come to a vote until Jepsen’s memo is addressed in its entirety.

A vote on the revised bill would be symbolic, not substantive, Fasano said.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has not taken a position on a new casino, but he has acknowledged that expansion seems to be the only way to preserve the state’s market share.

A casino in the I-91 corridor north of Hartford could recapture nearly 53 percent of the Connecticut gambling dollars that otherwise would be lost to the MGM Springfield casino, according to a study commissioned by the tribes.

MGM Springfield is slated to open in 2017. The tribes had expressed hope of being able to design and build a smaller casino that would be ready to compete.

While MGM is building a full resort, the tribes want permission to open a casino with slots, gaming tables and food and beverage service, but no hotel or entertainment.

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