What could be inside Lamont’s secret casino plan?

February 28, 2019

It’s hard to imagine decision-makers for the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Indians and MGM Resorts all sitting amiably around a table and carving up Connecticut’s future gambling business in a way that might satisfy everyone, compromise and mediation without lawyers.

And yet Gov. Ned Lamont suggested, in a meeting this week with The Day’s Editorial Board, that those improbable negotiations are indeed underway.

Lamont said there is a 50-50 chance they might come up with a deal. He said give him a few weeks to see if he won’t be able to announce something.

If the governor can entice the tribes and MGM to settle their differences and make a grand casino bargain, then I could almost imagine him getting Connecticut Republicans to endorse highway tolls. Maybe he can make the unions suggest cuts to their pensions or build a bridge to Long Island.

Even the governor had to admit the notion of the tribes and the Las Vegas gambling company that has made a move for their traditional turf getting along is a long shot.

“I inherited a lot of deep-seated enmities in the state, and that’s one of them,” Lamont said.

The governor seemed so strangely confident, though, I decided to consider some scenarios in which everyone might be made happy.

The governor seems to want, if not a full casino, something big, with a lot of jobs, developed in Bridgeport. The Bridgeport lawmakers who have gotten behind a new bill to develop a competition for a Bridgeport casino license seem increasingly emboldened and greedy for a win in each new session of the General Assembly.

MGM says it wants to compete for a Bridgeport license. The tribes say they are not interested in competing for Bridgeport and this week warned lawmakers that they will stop paying the state 25 percent of the revenue from their reservation slot machines, part of their gaming exclusivity deal, the moment a new bill to create a Bridgeport casino license is signed into law.

That could deprive the state of many hundreds of millions of dollars of tribal slot machine payments, until a new commercial casino is built in Bridgeport and paying a gambling tax, the tribes said.

The tribe’s pending ask from the legislature is approval of a bill that would untangle last year’s permission for a new casino in East Windsor from a U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs-required review of the gaming compacts with the state. MGM lobbying in Washington apparently helped grind the federal approval to halt.

Maybe the grand bargain for a gaming future that would make everyone happy would be for MGM to step back from its legal threats over the East Windsor casino and a clear green light for it from the legislature. The tribes would develop East Windsor, competing with MGM Springfield, and pay taxes on the gambling revenue there, just like at any other commercial casino.

A contest for a Bridgeport casino license, which MGM or some other gambling corporation might win, would give Lamont and his Bridgeport constituents the casino they want. Maybe the tribes and the winning Bridgeport casino operator could share payments to the state equivalent to their reservation slots, until a Bridgeport casino is ready to be taxed.

Then their big reservation casino resorts could be run without paying gambling taxes.

Presumably, part of the grand bargain would be to divide the sports betting pie, once it goes in the oven to get baked.

Maybe there are other permutations of the possible casino deal that Lamont was teasing this week, but I can’t think of what those might be.

I’ve long thought an opportunity for the tribes to run their big resorts without paying gaming taxes would give them a competitive edge. Discounted slot play could become a big seller and another reason, besides the shopping, golf courses and other amenities here, for gamblers to keep driving beyond Bridgeport.

If it is acceptable to the tribes, then presumably it would be good for eastern Connecticut.

If the governor pulls this one off, his second magic act will be a tall order.

If he doesn’t, I don’t think it would surprise many people.

This is the opinion of David Collins.