Senate to Mull Connecticut Gaming Bill

The Connecticut Senate will consider a bill that would allow the state’s two gaming tribes to operate three casinos off the reservation. The bill would make the state’s gaming industry more competitive against a gale of competition coming their way, say supporters. Attorney General George Jepson (l.) says the bill may be unconstitutional.

A bill that would authorize three more small, minimal-amenity casinos, to be jointly operated by both of Connecticut’s gaming tribes was moved from the legislature’s planning and development committee. Its next stop is the Senate.

This is the first time since 1995 that the legislature has moved forward on a gaming expansion bill.

Senator Cathy Osten, who is co-chairman of the committee, said the bill would probably be tweaked by amendments, almost certainly to include a provision that will allow community voters to decide whether to allow a casino. The existing bill allows a community’s elected officials to authorize a casino.

She also favors a provision that would provide the state from providing any of the funding to build or operate the three casinos. That idea failed to be included in the initial vote, but could be added later.

She told the Associated Press, “I think it should go to a referendum and I would fight for that as well.”

Rep. Matthew Ritter agrees with the referendum inclusion, “I think for any town that’s going to do this, it should definitely go to a vote before the citizens,” he said.

The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, who operate the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos, are pushing the bill. They expect to see revenues from their two casinos plunge when casinos open in nearby Massachusetts. Since they pay 25 percent of those revenues to the state, lawmakers feel the state has a vested interest in preventing a widespread hemorrhage.

Since the existing tribal state gaming compacts limit casinos to Indian reservations, a redo of those compacts would be necessary. In addition, some legal experts, including the state’s attorney general, George Jepsen, worry that the law would open the floodgates to casinos by just about anyone.

Jepsen also warns that showing partiality to the Pequots and Mohegans invites third parties to challenge the arrangement in court as a violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. A tribe that has indicated a willingness to challenge such a law is the Schaghticoke of Kent, which has sought federal recognition for several years.

According to the General Assembly’s Office of Legislative Research it might also violate a provision of the state constitution that states, “no man or set of men are entitled to exclusive public emoluments or privileges from the community.” The office also warns that the constitution prohibits monopolies of trades.

Governor Dannel P. Malloy said last week that the attorney general and others have raised, “serious concerns.”

The bill is proceeding despite those warnings. Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff told reporters last week that attorneys are studying the issues raised. “It’s not something where the answer easily presents itself but it is something we think we can work through,” he said.

Supporters say the casinos would create jobs and buffer the expected devastating effect of the $800 million MGM Springfield opening just across the border in Massachusetts.

Mohegan Chairman Kevin Brown and Pequot Chairman Rodney Butler issued a joint statement promising to address the concerns of those who oppose the bill.

“The strength of the relationship between the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes and the state of Connecticut has been the willingness of all three governments to work together to solve complex issues and problems,” they said.

One possible location for one of the casinos is the Bradley Teletheater in Windsor Locks, which currently hosts simulcast racing. Danbury is another candidate. Bridgeport and New Haven also have simulcast operations that could be converted to offer gaming. Most likely one casino would be located off Interstate 91 to tap traffic between Hartford and Springfield.

The town of Enfield is discussing whether or not it wants to invite a casino, or would prefer to close the door. At the town council meeting last week Mayor Scott Kaupin said a resident who brought the subject up contacted him.

Councilor Joe Bosco said he was keeping an open mind. “If properly done, the casinos could be a boom for Enfield,” he said.

Town Manager Matthew Coppler commented, “From what we’re seeing and hearing, the casino wouldn’t be a traditional, large casino operation.” Instead it would be “more in line with an off-track betting concept.”

Recently the town council of Windsor voted to close the door on any casino.

The bill isn’t popular with the general public. A Quinnipiac University poll shows that only 36 percent of voters like the bill.

Former Mohegan Chairman Bruce “Two Dogs” Bozsum is optimistic that the bill will pass. He noted that the tribes and state, “always work through those things.”

According to one analyst, Connecticut lawmakers may be swimming against a demographic tide that is fated to swamp them. Keith Foley, analyst for Moody’s Investors Service wrote last week, “The regional gaming industry has been struggling for some time to increase revenues as consumers continue to count their discretionary dollars. At this point, there is little to suggest this dynamic will change any time soon.”

He noted that the percentage of revenue that casinos get from amenities other than gambling is smaller in regional casinos than it is in the big casinos in Las Vegas. He cites Wynn Las Vegas, which gets more than 60 percent of its income from non-gaming activities, compared to 65 percent -85 percent gaming revenues for regional casinos.

Depending so strongly on slots and table games creates the risk of losing big as older customers who love to gamble are replaced by younger customers who may just like it and whose likes are largely shaped by their iPads, iPhones and other electronic devices.