Attorney General George Jepsen strongly warned the legislature Tuesday against allowing the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to jointly develop a casino in East Windsor without the approval of the U.S. Interior Department, a condition of the 2017 law permitting the project to compete with MGM Springfield.
The opinion is likely to be the final blow in this legislative session to any hopes by the tribes to circumvent the requirement for Interior Department approval.
In a formal opinion sought by House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, Jepsen said his office still views approval by the Interior Department of amendments to the state’s gaming compacts and memoranda of understanding with the tribes as necessary to guarantee the new project would not jeopardize Connecticut’s existing revenue-sharing arrangement with them.
“Our view of the risks of proceeding without federal approval of the amendments is unchanged. Indeed, subsequent events and actions of Interior only reaffirm our view that approval of the amendments is highly recommended to protect the State’s interests under the Compacts and the MOUs,” Jepsen wrote.
The tribes now pay the state 25 percent of the gross slots revenue at their two separately owned and operated casinos, Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, under deals that give the two federally recognized tribes exclusive casino gaming rights in Connecticut. That is expected to produce at least $260 million this year.
The Interior Department has refused to accept or reject proposed amendments to the gaming agreements, blocking construction of the jointly owned casino on a hillside overlooking I-91 between Hartford and Springfield. The state and tribes are suing the Interior Department over its refusal to act.
“To take action on the assumption that the State and Tribes will succeed in the onging litigation would be highly imprudent,” Jepsen wrote.
The tribes and MGM Resorts International have been engaged in a fierce lobbying war in Connecticut for nearly three years. MGM is intent on blocking the East Windsor facility, which was proposed after Massachusetts granted MGM a license to develop a $960-million casino resort over the state line in Springfield.
The East Windsor casino was mean to blunt the loss of market share to MGM Springfield, which is expected to open this fall. Massachusetts also has authorized a second casino in Everett, Mass., just north of Boston. The two projects, plus new competition in Rhode Island and New York, are expected to drive down the slots revenue paid to Connecticut.
MGM, a gaming giant based in Nevada, opened a new front in the casino wars last year, proposing a casino resort in Bridgeport. Expansion outside East Windsor would require the passage of new legislation that would end the state’s exclusivity deal with the tribal casinos and the revenue sharing.
Jepsen said the legislature could pass a law this year exploring the viability of casino expansion — without authorizing it — without jeopardizing the exclusivity deal.
In response to other gambling questions posed by Aresimowicz, the attorney general also advised that the tribes would not have exclusive rights to sports betting, should the U.S. Supreme Court strike down existing federal limits, as many court observers expect before the end of the court’s term in June.
“The Compacts set out a list of authorized games,” Jepsen wrote. “Sports betting is not listed as an authorized game. By contrast, for example, pari-mutuel betting on horse and dog racing and jai alai games are authorized games. The exclusion of sports betting from the specific list of authorized games is compelling evidence that the Compacts do not presently authorize it.”