AP NEWS

Committee sends all gaming bills to House, Senate

March 20, 2019

Hartford — A legislative panel endorsed more than a half-dozen gaming bills Tuesday, approving measures that would establish competitive bidding for a casino, jumpstart the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes’ stalled East Windsor casino plan, legalize sports betting, authorize online lottery sales and create a gaming commission.

The Public Safety and Security Committee votes ensured more debate is at hand, which, in some cases, was the reason committee members voted the way they did.

“A lot of policy still has to be worked out,” said Rep. Patrick Boyd, a Pomfret Democrat who voted for the competitive-bidding bill while acknowledging that some believe it could jeopardize the state’s revenue-sharing agreements with the tribes, respective owners of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun.

The bill passed by a vote of 20-4.

MGM Resorts International, a key backer of the competitive-bidding bill, has indicated it would pursue a Bridgeport casino if the legislation becomes law.

“We’re in chapter two of a pretty long book,” Boyd said. “We need to make damn sure of the financial ramifications.” All of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities receive some of the slot-machine revenue the tribes forward to the state, he said.

Rep. Tony Hwang, a Fairfield Republican, cited the “societal impacts” of casino expansion in voting against the competitive-bidding bill, joining Boyd in lamenting what they said was a lack of guidance from “the executive branch.”

Gov. Ned Lamont, like his predecessor, fellow Democrat Dannel P. Malloy, has not taken the lead on gaming matters, leaving it to lawmakers to grapple with the complex issues involved.

In a 19-5 vote, the committee approved a bill eliminating the statutory requirement that the tribes secure federal approval of gaming-agreement amendments associated with their joint plan to build a casino in East Windsor to fend off competition from MGM Springfield, a competing facility MGM Resorts opened last summer in western Massachusetts.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s failure to act on the Mashantuckets’ gaming amendment has stymied the East Windsor project.

“I think legislators on the committee were persuaded that the federal review process of the East Windsor application was at the very least unfair, and perhaps even criminal, considering that the Justice Department is now reportedly investigating Ryan Zinke, the former Interior Department secretary who was in charge of reviewing that application,” state Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat who championed the so-called East Windsor “fix,” said in a statement.

“It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that something was terribly amiss with that process,” Osten said. “That investigation gave our bill a boost of relevance. Now it’s up to the full General Assembly to push it over the finish line so we can get to work on a new building and more jobs.”

By somewhat narrower margins, the committee approved bills that would authorize the introduction of legal sports betting in the state — either exclusively by the tribes or by the tribes and other gaming operators, including the state’s off-track betting system and the Connecticut Lottery Corp. A measure that would enable the lottery to sell tickets to its draw games at an unspecified number of retailers and via the internet also passed, despite some opposition.

Committee members backed the proposed creation of a three-member gaming commission that would employ 35 people — staffing and expense that’s currently part of the Department of Consumer Protection.

A bill calling for a study of the effects of gambling passed by a wide margin.

“Today’s committee action advances legislation that puts Connecticut’s interests front and center — creation of an independent state gaming commission, a transparent competitive process for a valuable commercial casino license, and a competitive sports betting marketplace that will benefit consumers and the state,” MGM Resorts said in a statement issued after the votes. “We will continue to work with legislators and the administration to achieve what’s best for Connecticut — maximizing jobs, economic development and revenue.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com