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Why not casinos for all Connecticut cities?

September 4, 2018

It is hard to specifically assign blame for the fact that MGM Springfield has begun to vacuum gambling business and the associated tax revenue out of Connecticut, but there is a lot of it to go around.

We won’t know, until the first financial reports from the new MGM Springfield are in, how big a hit Connecticut’s share of the tribal casino slot machines here will take but, however bad, it is only the beginning of a long slide in state casino gambling revenues, with an enormous Boston casino under construction.

The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, of course, deserve a lot of blame for letting a Vegas gambling company completely outmaneuver them, not just in the Connecticut State Capitol, their own turf, but also in Washington, where MGM’s lobbying continues to gum up the works for approval of a tribal casino in East Windsor that was supposed to stop the bleeding to Springfield.

Connecticut lawmakers as well as Gov. Dannel Malloy also get a lot of blame for allowing Connecticut’s gaming policy to ossify, relying on the longstanding deal with the tribes and then not defending it when MGM moved its lobbying team to Hartford to block any response to the Springfield competition.

Connecticut got skunked, and it will be a while before the state will be able to recover from its mistakes. The dynamic in which Connecticut was siphoning casino gambling dollars from Massachusetts has been reversed.

Never mind the disastrous response to losing casino revenue and jobs to Massachusetts, the state has been flat footed, too, in developing a sports betting strategy since the Supreme Court opened the door to it. That betting money soon will be flowing out of Connecticut. The tribes, asserting their monopoly deal, have tied the state’s hands on sports betting, too.

Sadly, there not only has been no leadership on this issue from the current governor, but every single gubernatorial candidate seemed to be flailing on the primary campaign trail when asked to envision a gaming future for Connecticut.

It seems to me the state needs to do quickly what it should have done a long time ago: Assemble a team of professionals, working as consultants or with some kind of legislative committee or task force, to assess the current situation and propose a future policy.

It appears that the pact with the tribes giving them a monopoly in exchange for a share of their slot machine revenue is outdated, a relic from a time when the reservation casinos were able to draw customers from around the Northeast without competition.

Now they are no longer guaranteed all the business from Connecticut, since Springfield is actually a lot closer to a lot of state residents than the tribal reservations.

One of the roadblocks to breaking the deal with the tribes was timing, because so much money would be lost from the lucrative slot machine deal from the time other state gambling was legalized — this is when the tribes say they would stop paying — and when the new casinos could actually be built.

But that equation is changing now that the slot fund revenues are diminishing. It appears the time has come when the state could consider other alternatives without taking too severe a financial hit. (In the last fiscal year, the casinos combined to pay the state 430 million in 2007.)

MGM Springfield pioneers an interesting new concept of an urban casino built into a downtown landscape, instead of a standalone resort model.

Maybe this is one Connecticut could borrow. Instead of one big new expensive casino somewhere else in the state, how about a series of regional smaller ones, as anchors in Connecticut’s many beleaguered downtowns.

Wouldn’t New London welcome a casino in one of its empty hulking downtown buildings? Couldn’t some downtown casinos be brought on line pretty quickly, all over the state?

The tribes, free from the obligation of slot payments to the state, could invest the money in their destination resorts. Connecticut cities could benefit with facilities that would employ people, draw more visitors from the suburbs and pay taxes.

The urban casinos could be prohibited from serving food, so city restaurants would benefit.

Connecticut’s failed gambling strategy is only one issue demonstrating the void of leadership in Hartford.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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