Conn. casino expansion bill resurrects push for open competition

Tue, Feb 6, 2018 (1:30 p.m.)

A bill that would scrap the license for a casino in East Windsor, Conn., and open up competitive bidding for the state’s first casino off tribal lands is being proposed by legislators in Bridgeport, Conn.

State lawmakers last year backed giving the tribal operators of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun the go-ahead to jointly establish the first commercial casino in East Windsor. MGM Resorts International subsequently proposed a casino in Bridgeport.

“The process will let every developer with an interest — whether it is MGM or the tribes or anyone else — give it their best shot. It is a process that is consistent with industry best practices, and it’s best for Connecticut,” Rep, Chris Rosario, D-Bridgeport, said, in a release Tuesday.

The bill calls for a two-step process, first seeking bids and then making a selection.

A push for open competition in the legislature failed to gain traction in the legislature last year.

Allowing another operator into the Connecticut market would violate the state’s exclusive agreements with the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to operate slot machines in the state. Those agreements brought more than $250 million to state coffers last year, but the total has fallen in recent years as casino competition has intensified in neighboring states.

The Bridgeport legislators said the first step outlined in the bill does not violate those agreements because it only seeks to cast a wider net and evaluate potential economic benefits.

Andrew Doba, a spokeman for MMCT Venture, the tribal joint venture pursuing East Windsor, said the move would hurt Connecticut both in revenue and jobs.

“Let’s call this bill what it is,” Doba said, in a statement. “The MGM Massachusetts Protection Act. A bill that will cost Connecticut $1 billion dollars in revenue and eliminate 4,000 jobs was a bad idea last year and is still a bad idea.”

MMCT based the revenue and job numbers on the results of studies paid for by the tribes.

State law requires the legislature to approve any expansion of casino gambling.

Debate over expansion heated up after MGM secured approval and began construction of a $960 million casino and entertainment complex in Springfield. The prospect of the venue stoked worries that gamblers in Connecticut would be drawn out of the state, costing the state not only revenue but jobs tied to the gaming industry.

After MGM proposed its plan for Bridgeport, the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans also expressed interest in the city, but said it was a separate issue from East Windsor, where it was still moving ahead.

The Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans have yet to begin construction in East Windsor. MGM Springfield is set to open in September.

The tribes are still seeking a definitive approval from the U.S. Department of Interior for the expansion, and the matter is now in the courts.

The bill, which is drawing support from Bridgeport and New Haven delegations, calls for:

• A minimum of 2,000 people to be directly employed at the venue.

* At least $500 million in investment.

* A $50 million non-refundable licensing fee.

• 25 percent of annual gross gaming revenues going to the state on both slots and table games.

• Another 10 percent of annual gross gaming revenue from video slot machines to be set aside to fund Educational Cost Sharing grants for state towns and cities.

MGM has argued that Bridgeport would be a better place for a casino in Connecticut because it would draw from the lucrative market between Fairfield County and New York City.

“With its strategic location right in the center of the transportation hub including highway, rail, bus and ferry, Bridgeport is uniquely poised to become an entertainment center that can attract patrons far and near,” Rep. Ezequiel Santiago, D-Bridgeport, said.

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