A tentative step toward casino expansion in Connecticut

The push by the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal nations for casino expansion in Connecticut ended early Friday morning with final passage of a measure that grants the tribes little more than a symbolic victory.

On a vote of 88 to 55, the House approved legislation that authorizes the tribes to open negotiation with communities interested in hosting a casino, but pushes off the substantive legislative debate over expansion until next year. It passed the Senate nine days ago, 20 to 16.

“The amendment before us is basically a first step,” said Rep. Stephen D. Dargan, D-West Haven, the co-chair of the Public Safety and Security Committee.

The tribes began the session with a goal of winning authorization to jointly develop a casino in the I-91 corridor north of Hartford, an attraction geared to compete with the MGM Springfield casino resort slated to open in 2017.

They settled for a bill that outlines a process and, they hope, creates a sense of momentum for expansion, even though some legislators warned that support for Dargan’s “first step” is no commitment for a second, bigger step next year.

“A vote for this bill is not necessarily a vote for expansion,” said Rep. Chris Davis, R-Ellington, whose district includes East Windsor, a potential host community. He voted yes, but stressed he might not be willing to take the second step.

Dargan told the House members that their votes for the revised legislation were a statement recognizing the importance of casino jobs now threatened by fast-growing competition in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York.

The tribes struck an upbeat note, thanking legislators in a statement issued by their tribal chairmen, Kevin Brown of the Mohegans and Rodney Butler of the Pequots:

“We are pleased and grateful to the State House of Representatives for their support of a plan to protect thousands of Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods jobs and revenue from out of state competition. This legislation, which we hope will be signed by the Governor, will begin a process by the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot Tribes to invest millions to identify the best site for a satellite gaming facility in north central Connecticut, and to work with state and federal officials to ensure the state and our two Tribal governments are legally protected.”

Among those voting against the bill were Rep. John Scott of Groton, the freshman Republican whose district includes Ledyard, home of the Pequots’ Foxwoods Resorts Casino.

Despite the visible presence of casino employees at the State Capitol, Scott insisted that he has heard from few constituents in favor of casino expansion.

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