With visit to Malloy, tribes renew push for I-91 casino bill in 2017

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.

The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal nations signaled Friday with a real-estate announcement and a visit to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy that they are ready to press for legislation authorizing a casino in East Windsor or Windsor Locks to compete with an MGM gambling resort under construction in Springfield.

But the tribes’ bid to jointly construct the state’s first casino off tribal lands, expanding gaming from rural eastern Connecticut to the heavily traveled I-91 corridor between Hartford and Springfield, remains fraught with as many legal questions and political challenges as when they first broached the idea nearly two years ago.

The visit two days after the opening of the 2017 legislative session prompted no change in the public neutrality of the governor. His office issued a statement acknowledging the importance of the jobs provided by the tribes and their casino resorts, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, but promising only that the administration was “closely watching” the bid for an I-91 casino.

A contingent led by the chairmen of the two tribal councils, Rodney Butler of the Mashantucket Pequots and Kevin Brown of the Mohegans, privately met with Malloy and senior staff at the state Capitol before the tribes’ announcement they have eliminated all but East Windsor and Windsor Locks as potential casino sites.

“We’re here to tell him we have a plan for moving forward,” Brown told CT Mirror. “We’ve made some decisions.”

Establishing local support for a casino site, however, is only one piece of an elaborate puzzle that must be completed before Malloy and the General Assembly decide whether to support the expansion of casino gambling to help the tribes – the source of about $250 million in annual revenue sharing to the state – maintain market share in face of competition from MGM, whose Springfield business plan relies on drawing customers from Connecticut.

Mohegan Tribal Chairman Kevin Brown, left, and Chuck Bunnell of Mohegan Sun

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

Mohegan Tribal Chairman Kevin Brown, left, and Chuck Bunnell of Mohegan Sun, waiting to see the governor.

In a brief interview outside the governor’s office, Brown and Butler offered no details of how they intend to reassure Malloy and legislators that Connecticut can grant the tribes exclusive rights to a third casino without endangering its current profit-sharing deal with the tribes or exposing the state to claims of illegal favoritism.

Brown said the tribes will address those questions soon.

Attorney General George Jepsen effectively killed their effort to win casino authorization in 2015 with a six-page legal memo warning of potentials risks:

  • Could it jeopardize the state’s existing tribal compacts, which grant exclusive rights for slot machines at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods in return for 25 percent of gross slot revenues?
  • What would happen should another tribe win federal recognition in Connecticut?

Jepsen also warned that granting the tribes exclusive rights to a casino off tribal lands could violate either the commerce or equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

With no ready answers two years ago, the tribes settled for a largely symbolic law outlining a non-binding process for the tribes to solicit interest from municipalities to host a casino. The tribes, of course, could solicit such interest without authorization from the General Assembly. But even that limited bill drew a lawsuit from MGM, the Nevada-based gambling giant, and an effort in Congress to bar the tribes from developing a casino outside their reservations.

MGM ridiculed the announcement Friday that the tribes were down to two potential locations.

“As we have been saying all along, this isn’t a process, it’s a sham,” said Alan Feldman, executive vice president of MGM Resorts International. “Today’s announcement is more evidence of that. The tribes tell towns they’re in, then they’re out. Drawings of a casino get pried loose under the threat of FOI, then we’re told the drawings weren’t real. Then late on a Friday afternoon, another mysterious announcement comes out.”

The announcement was hardly mysterious. The tribes have been trying to build momentum for a return to the legislature, and it is expected they will settle on a final location before they seek legislative approval.

The East Windsor site is a vacant Showcase Cinema on a hillside visible to traffic on I-91. The tribes’ joint venture has an option on the parcel. Andrew Doba, a spokesman for the tribes, said they also are considering locations in Windsor Locks, including at Bradley International Airport.

Doba said the tribes are working with officials in both municipalities to set up local forums to outline what a casino would mean for their communities, if approved by the legislature and local authorities.

MGM suggested in August that the tribes were trying to secretly strike a deal with the airport authority, which could not allow a casino without legislative approval. On Friday, MGM again suggested that the limited 2015 law itself unfairly favored the tribes.

“This is not the right way for a state to enter into its first commercial casino,” said Feldman, the MGM executive. “The right way is what we’ve been suggesting all along: The state should scrap the current law and adopt a new one that guarantees a fair, open, transparent, and most important, a competitive process. One that allows all qualified bidders to compete.  That’s the only way the state is going to maximize the number of jobs that can be created, and the amount of gaming revenue that can be generated.”

The tribes and MGM have been preparing for two years for the coming legislative fight.

The tribes and MGM have lobbyists at the state Capitol, and the tribes’ efforts extended to the Democratic and Republican national conventions last summer. Butler was a delegate to the Democratic convention, where the tribes sponsored a breakfast at which the keynote speaker was U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, then the ranking Democrat on an Indian Affairs subcommittee.

MGM has hired Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general, and Global Strategy Group, a strategist for Malloy’s campaigns for governor.

On Friday, Malloy’s communication director, Kelly Donnelly, issued a carefully written statement of neutrality:

“We value and respect our relationship with the tribal nations and the role that casinos play as employers in our state. In regard to the potential for a third casino, the General Assembly proposed and adopted legislation creating a process for the potential siting for this type of development. That process is playing out in an appropriate manner, one step at a time, and our administration is closely watching as it progresses.”

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