If lawmakers attempt to speed Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim’s casino bill though the General Assembly today in the remaining hours of the 2019 session, they face opposition from Gov. Ned Lamont, whose chief of staff bluntly called the terms unacceptable.
Ganim was at the State Capitol until nearly midnight Tuesday, pitching legislation necessary to consummate a deal he struck with the tribal owners of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun to bring a casino to Bridgeport. He met with legislative leaders and the governor’s top aides.
“He wanted to explain the deal he made with the tribes,” said Ryan Drajewicz, the governor’s chief of staff. “It was a really bad deal.”
Ganim tried to avoid comment Tuesday night, suggesting he was at the Capitol to learn, not pitch. “That’s why I’m up here. We’ve got to midnight tomorrow night,” Ganim said then. “I guess we’ll just have to see what happens.”
The mayor’s bill, which has yet to be vetted at a public hearing or shared with the governor and most lawmakers, may get a second chance at a special session on economic development and highway tolls expected to be called for this summer. But the terms of his deal face significant opposition.
What the mayor has described as a $350 million project actually is a $100 million casino to be built by the state’s two federally recognized tribes and casino owners, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal nations. Another $250 million from unnamed private investors and public sources would fund improvements complementing the casino.
In return, the tribes would get exclusive rights to online sports betting and internet casino gaming, as well as some relief from the minimum contributions they are now required to pay the state under a decades-old deal to share slots revenue. They also could still build an East Windsor casino to compete with MGM Springfield.
Those are the tribes’ terms. They were rejected by the Lamont administration as one-sided in its earlier talks with the tribes, and House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said they most likely would be unacceptable to the General Assembly.
“As it’s written, I think it would be difficult to cobble the votes together,” Aresimowicz said. “But is it an excellent starting point for negotiations and maybe some clarifications? Yeah, I think a lot of work went into it. Having the tribes and Bridgeport on the same page is very important. They haven’t got there until now, so if this is the starting point, I think it’s a good starting point.”
Ganim’s deal with the tribes is an effort to work around Lamont, who soundly defeated him in the 2018 Democratic primary for governor. Without the blessings of the governor and General Assembly, Ganim’s deal with the tribes is worthless.
Aresimowicz, Lamont and others are searching for a path allowing Connecticut to exploit a U.S. Supreme Court decision that lifted the federal restrictions on sports betting, leaving legalization up to individual states. But the sports betting issue is intertwined with the tribes’ expansion plans in East Windsor, opposition by MGM and other vendors seeking rights sport bookmaking, Bridgeport’s desire for development, and Connecticut’s unique reputation with the Pequots and Mohegans.
Connecticut essentially is the tribes’ partner. In the early 1990s, in return for 25 percent of gross slots revenue, the state granted the tribes permission for slots and exclusive rights to all casino games in Connecticut. The deal has produced about $8 billion for the state over the years, though annual revenues have dropped with the arrival of competition in Rhode Island, New York and Massachusetts.
To win allies among urban legislators, MGM made its own bid for a Bridgeport casino in 2017, the year that the legislature permitted the tribes to jointly develop the casino in East Windsor, about halfway between Hartford and Springfield. MGM successfully lobbied the Department of Interior for two years to withhold a needed approval, which finally came in March.
Construction has yet to begin as the tribes seek financing.
MGM is poised to sue Connecticut if the East Windsor project goes forward, arguing that its approval without competition violated the commerce and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Lamont has tried to coax the tribes to give up East Windsor and focus on Bridgeport, offering a share of the rights to sports betting.
“This administration has invested more than four months attempting to negotiate a fair, equitable and impactful deal for all parties involved in this matter, including Bridgeport,” said Maribel La Luz, the governor’s communications director. “At the start of those negotiations, the governor stressed the critical importance of an agreement which removed litigation, strengthened the partnership with the tribes and grows Connecticut’s gaming economy.
“This 11th hour proposal has not been fully vetted or reviewed, and with only one day until the end of session, it’s not in the public’s best interest to take up this matter. Instead of resolving outstanding litigation, it puts the state at increased and immediate litigation risk from multiple parties.”
The tribes say Lamont is too concerned about avoiding litigation with MGM.
“Litigation is the cost of doing business, whether you are building a mall, a church or a casino,” said Andrew Doba, a spokesman for the tribes’ joint venture, MMCT.
In his pitch Tuesday night, Ganim referred to the casino as an element of a $350 million “entertainment zone project,” with the tribes responsible for $100 million to build a gambling facility. Unnamed private investors would be responsible for complementary elements, presumably including a hotel. The city, state or a new quasi-public authority — or combination of all three — would invest another $100 million in infrastructure.
“The tribes are not looking for public money for the casino,” Doba said.