Since Mohegan tribal leaders declared their interest six weeks ago in offering casino games at a new site, state officials’ responses have ranged from negative to lukewarm.
But if the concept is to get even a public hearing this spring, someone at the Capitol is going to have to step up and champion the issue, according to the leader of the legislative panel with jurisdiction over gaming issues.
Rep. Steve Dargan, D-West Haven, was careful not to dismiss the concerns raised about growing competition in neighboring states to the two Indian casinos in southeastern Connectic
But Dargan, who co-chairs the Public Safety and Security Committee, also told The Mirror last week that winning approval for new gaming sites appears to be a daunting task at this time.
“Right now I don’t know if there is the interest to do any of this,” Dargan said. “We might not want to waste our time if it’s not something that’s going to clearly come forward.”
In mid-November, about one week after Mohegan tribal chairman Kevin Brown said the tribe wants to offer casino games at one or more new sites, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy expressed doubts that voters would approve.
“I don’t see Connecticut doing it, but, you know, that’s a legislative matter, at least initially,” the governor said. “I don’t think that there is a consensus in Connecticut that people want a lot more gaming.”
Top legislative leaders from both parties have largely been silent since the tribe’s announcement.
And opponents of problem gambling quickly followed the Mohegans’ announcement with calls for a new study on the scope of gaming addiction in Connecticut.
Malloy and his fellow Democrats in the legislature’s majority enacted a biennial budget in May 2013 that allowed the state to legalize keno in restaurants and bars here. But that authorization was revoked one year later, before the game had even been implemented, after strong public criticism.
“My administration is not playing a lead role in this, is not playing a direct role in this. I’ll have discussions with legislative leaders if, and when, they want to have those discussions,” Malloy said.
“The track record on the expansion of gaming hasn’t been that good in this state,” Dargan said.
But Mohegan Sun officials insist they are not seeking to expand gaming, but only to preserve a vital segment of Connecticut’s economy that soon will face fierce competition from north of the border.
MGM Resorts International, which is developing an $800 million casino in Springfield, has been very clear it is targeting Connecticut’s gaming industry, Brown said last month.
Two other casinos are being developed in Massachusetts — near the Rhode Island border and in Everett, just north of Boston. And two other casinos were opened in recent years in Rhode Island, in Lincoln and Newport.
“Make no mistake, Connecticut is the target market for the newly approved resorts in Massachusetts and New York,” Brown wrote Friday in a statement to The Mirror. “Mohegan Sun, of course, will survive as a desirable destination. The question will be, at what cost.”
Mohegan Sun, which opened in 1996, employs about 8,000 people. Foxwoods Resorts Casinos, which opened five years earlier near the Ledyard-North Stonington border, employs about 5,500 people.
In exchange for Connecticut’s forbidding casino games outside of Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, the two operations deposit 25 percent of their annual video slot receipts into the state’s coffers.
Connecticut’s take, which peaked at $430 million in 2007, has since been on a decline that appears to be speeding up. This year’s receipts are projected at $279 million. Next year’s receipts are $268 million, and by 2018 they are expected to fall to $191 million.
“This issue is not about gaming as an industry,” Brown added. “It is about protecting the business and jobs developed in Connecticut over two decades that are the envy of other states.”
The Mashantucket Pequots haven’t said what response, if any, state government should make to the increased competition.
“The Mashantucket Pequot Tribe is continuing the process of reviewing ways that will help the Tribe to recover and protect Connecticut jobs and revenue, given the existing and pending expansion of gaming on our state borders,” William L. Satti, director of the tribe’s Office of Legislative Relations, wrote in a statement Friday.
Rep. Peggy Sayers, D-Windsor Locks, the lone state legislator to advocate loudly for more gaming sites so far, said last week she believes the economic danger will rouse more support after the regular 2015 General Assembly session begins on Jan. 7.
Though no projections have been released to date, Sayers said she fears the gaming industry could lose a significant number of jobs in the coming years if Connecticut doesn’t respond to growing competition.
“Springfield is building something new and huge,” she said. “We have already seen certain losses in the amount of money we have seen from the slots.”
Sayers wants lawmakers to consider allowing casino games at a site in her district, the Bradley Teletheater, located adjacent to Bradley International Airport. It is one of 15 off-track-betting operations licensed in Connecticut and operated by Sportech, a British company.
Sayers said it also might make sense to allow casino games at two more OTB facilities, in Bridgeport and in New Haven.
“I think it’s something that we need to discuss,” Sayers said. “It’s a real problem, and you can’t avoid it. I don’t know if (Public Safety) is going to raise a bill, but I am certainly going to put in a bill. Connecticut has been too slow to recover jobs since the last recession. We can’t ignore what’s happening.”