A pair of bills that would expand casino gambling Connecticut sailed through a General Assembly committee Wednesday, setting the stage for a heated debate between warring ideologies on how the state should proceed.
One measure would allow the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Tribes to operate a third casino in the state in East Windsor, off tribal land. The other would provide for a new competitive process for the state's first commercial casino.
The public safety and security committee met to discuss Senate Bill 957, which would allow a casino gaming facility on non-tribal land.
“This is a huge decision. I don’t think the 20 of us on the public safety should make the final call," said Sen. Tony Guglielmo, the Republican chair of the Public Safety Committee that approved the two bills. Guglielmo voted in favor of both proposals.
He says he doesn't personally want to see a third casino open in the state, but said that's a decision that should be made by the full House and Senate, which will next see the bills for debate.
Democratic Committee Chairman Sen. Tim Larson, who voted for both bills, said his support should be viewed as an endorsement for the two tribes.
“I like the home team and that they’ve provided us $7 billion over the past 20 years, and we’re talking about anywhere from seven to ten thousand jobs and some $77 million in revenue," Sen. Larson, (D - East Hartford), said.
The Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribal partnership -- MMCT Venture – wants to build a casino at the site of the abandoned Showcase Cinema and Wal-Mart off Interstate 91 in East Windsor.
Tribal leaders said the facility would bring more than 1,700 jobs and $8.5 million annually to the town of East Windsor and the state would receive 25 percent of the revenues from slots and table games.
"We thank the Public Safety Committee for continuing this important conversation," Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council Chairman Rodney Butler said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon. "There are more than 9,000 jobs and million in tax revenue at stake for the state. Today's vote takes us one step closer to keeping both right here in Connecticut."
"Many people are promising many things this year," said Mohegan Tribal Council Chairman Kevin Brown said in a statement. "What we are promising is real - it's founded on an actual track record of partnership with both the state and every city and town in Connecticut, one we hope to continue in good standing for generations to come. We thank the committee for their vote today."
Earlier this week, Connecticut Attorney General released a long-awaited legal opinion about the legal pitfalls surrounding the proposed third casino in the state and laid out the possible issues that could arise.
Simply put, there is nothing simple, Attorney General George Jepsen said about opening a third casino in the state, off tribal land.
His opinion addresses legal challenges on the grounds that the process shut out commercial bidders, and what could happen to the state's agreement to collect millions of dollars every year in slot revenues from the existing tribal casinos.
Jepsen wrote there is an, "increased likelihood," that a court could side with a legal party that challenged the statute, if it were put into law, that only the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Tribes could operate a third casino. Jepsen wrote such a law would open the state up to constitutional challenges on the grounds of both Commerce and Equal Protection.
Jepsen went on to write that he believed the state could provide "meritorious defenses" of that position, that the relationship between the state and the tribes is unique. He hedged that comment by saying it would be "difficult to predict the outcome," of such legal challenges.
On the issue of the state's revenues from slot machines, Jepsen stays relatively neutral. While he recognizes there is precedent that would allow the compact to remain unhindered, he also mentions how a new presidential administration could change course when it comes to such arrangements.
In a statement released earlier this week, Andrew Doba, spokesman for both the Mohegan and Mashantuckets, wrote that while the tribes appreciated the Attorney General's opinion, they added, "Moreover, we have heard from people who spent their careers working at the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) that the proposed changes will not adversely impact anything. The speculation that the Trump administration might nonetheless disregard the law, past practice, and the purpose of IGRA is just that -- pure speculation."
MGM, which will open a casino in Springfield, Massachusetts next year, has been in a long public relations war over Connecticut opening a third casino.
Uri Clinton, senior vice president and legal counsel for MGM, said the opinion affirmed what the gaming company has argued from the start, saying, "Connecticut risks hundreds of millions in annual revenue if it proceeds with a commercial casino - even if that casino is to be operated jointly by the two federally-recognized tribes."
Sen. Len Fasano, the top Republican in the Connecticut Senate wrote in response, "All issues raised by the Attorney General will be looked at closely by lawmakers in the coming weeks as discussions around the proposed legislation continue.”