A rendering of the proposed casino in East Windsor. MMCT
A rendering of the proposed casino in East Windsor. MMCT

The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal nations crossed the finish line Wednesday on the last day of the General Assembly’s annual session, victors in a two-year struggle for authorization to jointly develop a casino to compete with an MGM Resorts International casino under construction in Springfield.

The House vote of 103 to 46 was surprisingly lopsided, exceeding the 2-1 margin last month in the Senate. A companion bill that helps the pari-mutuel industry by expanding the number of available off-track betting licenses from 18 to 24, passed on a closer vote of 77 to 72. It was drafted to attract some Democratic votes.

With Gov. Dannel P. Malloy set to the sign the bill, MGM says its battle to keep a competitor off its doorstep now will shift to U.S. District Court, where the Las Vegas gaming giant will argue the legislature violated the Equal Protection and Commerce clauses of the Constitution by refusing to consider other suitors for the state’s first commercial gaming license.

“That’s not a threat. That’s a promise,” said Uri Clinton, a senior vice president and legal counsel at MGM.

Chuck Bunnell, the chief of staff to the Mohegan tribal council celebrates after passage of the casino bill. ctmirror.org

The legislation authorizes the tribal owners of Foxwoods Resort and Mohegan Sun, two of the world’s largest gaming resorts, to open a satellite casino off I-91 in East Windsor, a community of 12,000 between Hartford and Springfield that already has approved the project.

Approval by the House came shortly after 1 a.m. after a low-key debate of barely 90 minutes, an anticlimactic conclusion to one of most intense and most expensive lobbying battles in recent years.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said the margin surprised him. One of the factors was personal lobbying by the employees of the two casinos.

“Nobody wanted to risk the jobs,” he said.

The bill’s prospects were uncertain in the House until late Tuesday afternoon, when CT Mirror reported that a deal had been struck.

“There are families across the state breathing a sigh of relief tonight thanks to leaders in both chambers and from both parties,” said Kevin Brown, the Mohegan tribal chairman.

Rodney Butler, his Pequots’ counterpart, said, “Tonight the Connecticut General Assembly passed one of the most significant jobs initiatives of the legislative session. With more than 9,000 jobs at risk, legislators banded together to save an important sector of Connecticut’s economy.”

Support for the tribes was bipartisan: Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, presented the bill to the chamber. Brief closing remarks were delivered by Rep. Mike France of Ledyard, a Republican whose district covers both tribal casinos.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, found herself on the same side as Malloy, who called the bill important to the economy.

“I commend and thank both chambers of the General Assembly for keeping Connecticut jobs and workers at the center of this debate,” Malloy said. “Our state has a longstanding partnership and compact with the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribal nations, who employ thousands of Connecticut residents in their casinos.  I have been very clear that I will not sign a bill that puts these jobs at risk, and I look forward to reviewing this proposal.”

Unlike the early years of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, when the two casinos grew and prospered in eastern Connecticut with little gambling competition in the Northeast, the tribes are fighting a holding action intended to mitigate the loss of business in a market approaching saturation.

The legislature’s non-partisan analysts declined to predict what impact the new casino might have on state revenues. The tribes are expected to pay the state $266 million in the current fiscal year under the terms of a deal struck in the 1990s: In return for exclusive rights to casino games, the tribes annually pay the state 25 percent of its gross slots revenues.

Malloy, who was neutral on casino expansion, came down on the tribes’ side last month when he told CT Mirror he would veto the MGM open-competition bill as a threat to the revenue sharing.

Uri Clinton of MGM watches the vote. ctmirror.org

The revenue sharing has been worth $7 billion to the state since 1993, but it has been shrinking since hitting a high of $430 million in 2007.  Analysts project the slots revenue will be worth $266 million again next year, then fall to $199 million after MGM Springfield opens.

MMCT, the tribes’ joint venture, says the new 200,000 square-foot casino would feature 2,000 slot machines and between 50 and 150 table games, but would have no hotel or other features of a major resort. Without the project, the tribes said they expected to lose 9,000 jobs.

MGM tried to convince legislators to think bigger and open a competition for a major casino resort in Fairfield County that could draw from an under-served gaming market in New York City, suggesting a license fee for such a resort could be worth $100 million.

Democrats included $145 million in one-time gaming fees in a budget proposed last month. The Malloy administration’s budget proposal included no increase in gaming revenue.

The tribes would pay no licensing fee under the bill approved Wednesday, only an annual tax equal to 25 percent of gross revenues from table games and slots. The first $4.5 million in slots revenue would be set aside for annual grants of $750,000 to each of six communities: Hartford, East Hartford, Ellington, Enfield, South Windsor and Windsor Locks.

Keith M. Phaneuf contributed to this story.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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