Competing Casino Bills Move Forward in Connecticut
Two competing casino expansion bills have been moved forward in the Connecticut legislature.
The bills have split the legislature, with one side supporting a commercial casino in Bridgeport as proposed by MGM Resorts International, and the other side supporting the two gaming tribes’ efforts to build a third casino in East Windsor.
Without deciding between the bills, the legislative leaders compromised to allow both to move further towards votes. The Public Safety Committee voted unanimously to draft separate but competing bills.
One bill would create a competitive bidding process for the state’s third casino. That is the plan the Bridgeport delegation supports. The other bill would remove impediments to the Mohegan and the Mashantucket Pequot tribes building an East Windsor casino in a former cinema near Interstate 91. That project has stalled due to inaction by the Department of the Interior, whose approval is required for an amended tribal state gaming compact. State law requires the tribes to amend the existing compacts before the Tribal Winds casino can move forward—and obtain federal approval for the amendments.
Last week the Washington Post reported that the department’s decision not to approve of that casino is now under investigation by a federal grand jury. That grand jury is allegedly looking into allegations that former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke lied to federal investigators about whether he was politically pressured to make that decision.
Chuck Bunnell, chief of staff of the Mohegan Tribe, commented, “I wish I could say I was shocked to hear that there might be a grand jury, and there might be investigations into political influence peddling. It’s extremely disappointing, but unfortunately, not shocking.”
He recalled that when his tribe got a letter detailing the department’s decision that it was cc’d to two Nevada lawmakers. MGM is based in Nevada.
The tribes have openly said they are building the East Windsor casino to blunt the effects of the MGM Springfield casino on their profits. Just as publicly MGM Resorts has pulled out all the stops to try to block that casino, or be able to compete for a commercial casino in the state.
During the committee’s proceedings, several lawmakers emphasized that their yes votes were only for moving the bills, and not whether they actually approved of them.
Chairman Joe Verrengia scheduled hearings on the competing bills for March 12, with a March 21 deadline to adopt one or none of them. “There’s still a lot of work to do,” he said.
Last year the competitive casino bill was approved in the House by a vote of 77-73, only to die in the Senate.
The tribes threaten to withhold the 25 percent of slots profits that they pay each year if the state begins the process of taking bids for a commercial casino. Last year they paid more than $250 million.
Last week almost two dozen officials and businesses of the eastern part of the state, who support the East Windsor casino lobbied Governor Ned Lamont and Lt. Governor Susan Bysiewicz in Hartford to say that they have benefited from the state’s relationship with the tribes. The leaders from Montville, Preston, Franklin, Salem, Groton and Norwich asked their support for the casino.
They were led by Senator Cathy Osten, one of the strongest supporters of the tribes, who declared, “We wanted to show the governor and lieutenant governor how in lock-step we are – from small towns like Franklin to the largest city in Eastern Connecticut, Norwich, Republicans and Democrats – we are in lockstep with supporting the tribal nations.” Referring to the Bridgeport bill, Osten added, “Last year we thought we had settled it. For it to come up this year is starting to pit region against region, and that’s not where we want to be.” She has accused Bridgeport lawmakers of trying to steal jobs from her region of the state.
Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom added, “Everybody is talking about the needs of Bridgeport, and everybody acknowledges that. But we feel this issue is one the state shouldn’t engage in.” He estimates that if the state breaks the gaming compacts, his city will lose $2 million each year.