The Senate’s approval of a little-noticed mixed-martial arts bill Tuesday evening was the signal: A deal has been struck for the House of Representatives to vote in the waning hours of the 2017 session to authorize the owners of Connecticut’s tribal gaming resorts to develop a casino in East Windsor.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, confirmed in an interview with CT Mirror the outline of a deal described by multiple sources familiar with negotiations to resolve the most hotly contested issue of the year in favor of the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal nations.
MGM Resorts International had fought for two years to block authorization of what the tribes call a “satellite casino” between Hartford and Springfield to blunt the loss of gambling market share once MGM opens its gaming resort in Springfield next year.
Aresimowicz said the deal with the Senate required the upper chamber to ease restrictions on mixed-martial arts in Connecticut, a demand of several Bridgeport and Hartford legislators who say the popular extreme-fight sport would be a new source of business for sports arenas in their cities.
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, had opposed mixed-martial arts bills for years at the request of organized labor, which was fighting with a non-union casino owner in Las Vegas, who has a major financial interest in the fights.
The issue this year was a bill that neutralized a health-and-safety liability issue that had discouraged mixed-martial arts promoters from staging matches in Connecticut. The state had required a greater level of health coverage for MMA than for boxing, as well as a gross-receipts tax that the bill repeals.
The deal created an awkward situation for the Connecticut AFL-CIO: The labor federation opposes easing the health-coverage standards for fighters, but it supported the authorization of a new casino expected to have union jobs.
The Senate voted 27-9, with Looney among those in favor, to give final passage to the House martial arts bill. Looney acknowledged after the vote that its passage was the first in a series of steps resulting in a House vote for the East Windsor casino project.
Aresimowicz said the plan is to approve the Senate casino bill, which passed by a 2-1 vote on May 24, without changes. In a separate bill, the House will address some of the requests by many undecided lawmakers in recent days.
The so-called sweetener bill is “drastically reduced” from an earlier proposal that would have placed slot machines in off-track betting facilities in Bridgeport, New Haven and Waterbury and allowed Hartford open a table-games casino, Aresimowicz said.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, told reporters earlier Tuesday that senators from some of the cities slated for slots were opposed, as was House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby.
Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, was among them. She said the installation of slots at an OTB parlor in her city would do little if anything for economic development, but would exploit her constituents.
Klarides said the slimmed-down sweetener bill would make a gesture to the pari-mutuel industry, which complained that OTB parlors would lose customers to an East Windsor casino, especially a sports tele-theater in nearby Windsor Locks. The number of available OTB licenses would increase from 18 to 24.
The bill would allow Connecticut to prepare for on-line sports better if federal restrictions are lifted by Congress, she said.
If a vote count by House leaders is correct, the biggest remaining complication could be an amendment that Rep. Chris Davis, R-Ellington, whose district includes East Windsor, was considering proposing: It would make approval of the casino contingent on a local referendum.
MGM has built its opposition to the tribes’s casino around a pitch that Connecticut, deep in the throes of a budget crisis, could do better by opening Fairfield County to competition for a casino resort that could appeal to the New York market. MGM says the license alone might be worth $100 million.
But the state granted the tribes’ exclusivity on casino games in the 1990s in return for a 25-percent annual share of gross slots revenues.
The tribes’ deal has produced $7 billion for the state since 1993 and is projected to be worth about $260 million this year, but it has been shrinking since hitting a high of $430 million in 2007 and is expected to continue to fall once MGM Springfield opens.
Slowing the deterioration of the revenue-sharing — and trying to offset the loss of thousands of jobs at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, once MGM opens, with new ones in East Windsor — is the heart of the tribes’ argument for a new casino.
Representatives of the tribes and MGM lined up at one point Tuesday outside the House majority office, waiting to make their final pitches.
The tribes went first, then MGM.
Uri Clinton, the MGM senior vice president and legal counsel who has been leading the company’s campaign, acknowledged being aware of the deal outlined to CT Mirror. He declined further comment, smiling and saying, “I’m going to wait to see what happens.”
The General Assembly is not his final battleground: MGM intends to challenge the legislation awarding a casino license without competition as a violation of the Equal Protection and Commerce clauses of the U.S. Constitution.