Speaker: Gaming issues, pot legalization likely to wait until 2019

Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, (left) and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, speak with reporters prior to Tuesday’s House session

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz was skeptical Tuesday that the legislature would resolve any major gaming issues or the legalization of marijuana this spring.

And while the Berlin Democrat did not rule out action entirely on bills tied to casinos, sports betting or online lottery sales, he said Connecticut’s best approach probably is to develop a comprehensive plan for gambling — which will take more time.

“I don’t know that we’re going to finish anything up this session,” Aresimowicz said, referring to gaming issues. “There’s a lot of moving parts and not having a comprehensive plan makes it more difficult. I’m not sure where it lands.”

Legislators last year began a process that could lead to development of a new commercial casino in East Windsor by the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes. This was planned to help Connecticut’s gaming industry compete with a new MGM Grand casino under development in nearby Springfield, Mass.

But the East Windsor project since has fallen into legal limbo. Legislative approval for it is contingent on U.S. Department of the Interior approval of amendments to the longstanding agreements that call for the tribes to share video slot revenues from their casinos with Connecticut. The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes own and operate the Foxwoods Resorts Casino and Mohegan Sun, respectively, both in southeastern Connecticut.

The Interior Department has refused to accept or reject any amendments, though, as long as they are tied to development of the new East Windsor casino. Connecticut and the tribes have responded by suing the department to force a decision.

Some have argued Connecticut should abandon that process, and its longstanding revenue-sharing deal with the tribes, and seek to license a new commercial casino in Bridgeport.

But Aresimowicz, who met with Capitol reporters before Tuesday’s session of the full House, said no one is sure whether that approach works economically.

Not having a comprehensive plan for the state is the problem, he said, adding, “It can’t be a ‘just let’s do something for Bridgeport and hope it works out for the rest of Connecticut.’”

Similarly, House Democrats wanted to authorize the Department of Consumer Protection to establish a regulatory framework for sports gaming. A case that could legalize sports betting in all 50 states is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, with a decision expected by early June.

Under one bill approved by the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, the tribal casinos, licensed off-track betting facilities and the Connecticut Lottery Corporation would be authorized to offer sports betting. The Department of Consumer Protection also would have the authority to license new providers.

That legislation also would allow the lottery to begin selling tickets online.

Aresimowicz said acting on all of these crucial gaming issues before the regular session closes on May 9 “is problematic” because of the major questions and concerns they raise among lawmakers.

Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby (file photo)

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said believes casino expansion and other gaming issues have supporters and opponents on both sides of the aisle, but agreed with House Democratic leaders that the chances of approval before May 9 are slim.

“I think it will be a heavy lift to get done in the next couple of weeks,” she added.

When it comes to the legalization and taxation of recreational marijuana use and sales, Aresimowicz said it might be even more complicated and has a tremendous social impact to go with the budgetary component.

He called last week’s vote by the Appropriations Committee to approve a marijuana legalization bill “a huge step forward. I wasn’t even sure that was going to happen.”

“There’s bipartisan support,” Aresimowicz added. “It’s not a party issue, But when it comes to the House floor, I don’t know where the votes are.”

I don’t know how much has changed since last year,” added House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford. The House debated a marijuana legalization bill, but then suspended the measure without a vote as part of a bipartisan compromise as leaders acknowledged it lacked support to pass.

Klarides, who opposes marijuana legalization, said that most House Republicans do as well. “We will continue to fight that fight,” she said. “I don’t see the will to do that this year.”

Advocates say subjecting marijuana sales to the 6.35 percent base sales tax rate, and a 25 percent surcharge, would raise $71 million in the first year.

The Connecticut Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, the local affiliate of the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project is recommending Connecticut transition to a tax of $50 per ounce, plus the standard 6.35 percent sales tax.

By 2020 this would raise $166 million per year from Connecticut residents alone, the coalition estimates, with the potential to develop a similar take from out-of-staters purchasing here.

Eight states now permit the sale of marijuana for recreational use. They are: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

Vermont recently legalized recreational use of home-grown marijuana. And while the states that permit and tax the sale of pot adopted those statutes by popular ballot, Vermont approved its new law through a vote of the legislature.

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