Tribal casino bill faces challenges despite Senate passage

The Connecticut Senate passed a bill early Wednesday allowing a new satellite casino to be built by two Native American tribes in East Windsor, but it's doubtful it will clear the House of Representatives.

"It's a very complicated issue in and of itself and the political piece is all over the place because you have competing interests and you're talking about a lot of money," said West Hartford Rep. Joe Verrengia, the Democratic House chairman of the legislature's Public Safety Committee.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, confirmed Wednesday that the bill that passed the Senate on a 24-12 vote cannot pass the House in its current form.

Some lawmakers want to create a competitive process for a potentially lucrative state casino license that would allow other entities to develop a casino. Others oppose expanded gambling in general. And there are legislators who want some assurances that off-track betting facilities in their districts will be protected with the prospect of increased competition.

Verrengia has his own concerns with the Senate bill, which he said exposes the state to years of potential litigation because it would grant the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes the exclusive right to develop a casino off tribal reservation land. The tribes want to build the facility to compete with the $950 million casino being built by MGM Resorts International in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts, saying the satellite venue will help to save thousands of jobs at their existing casinos.

MGM is suing Connecticut over the current process, claiming it's unfair to outside casino developers to grant exclusive casino rights to the two tribes.

"Of course we have to protect our constitutional right to compete in these markets," said Uri Clinton, MGM's senior vice president and legal counsel, whose company has expressed interest in opening a casino in southwestern Connecticut to capture the New York City market.

On Wednesday, the Kent-based Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, which wants to open its own casino, announced it "will have no alternative" but to sue the state if the legislation allowing the two federally recognized tribes to open the $200 million-to-$300 million East Windsor facility prevails.

"Let's face it, if we go the tribal way, the Senate bill, there's no question that that's going to be tied up in the courts for at least two-to-five years. And no one knows how we would prevail," Verrengia said.

Verrengia also remains concerned about the state potentially risking its current casino-revenue sharing agreement with the Mohegans and Mashantuckets, owners and operators of the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino in southeastern Connecticut. The tribes have pointed to a recently released letter from the Bureau of Indian Affairs they say confirms that President Donald Trump's administration would not be inclined to scrap that arrangement if the tribes open a commercial casino.

Proponents of the tribal casino contend that letter has helped to alieve the concerns of some Connecticut politicians. Rodney Butler, the Mashantucket Pequot's tribal council chairman, said the BIA's "reconfirmation" makes the tribes "increasingly optimistic" state officials will rally to help their casino employees like lawmakers have done for workers in other industries.

"There's a degree of certainty in that letter," said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk.

Attorney General George Jepsen agrees the latest letter appears to affirm the federal government's policy and practice of not disturbing the underlying and existing relationships between states and tribes, according to a spokesperson. But Jepsen's office does note that the letter is nonbinding.

Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who has not pushed for casino expansion, has said he's now inclined to support the tribal casino bill over an open bidding process.

"These tribes employ thousands of Connecticut residents and are an integral part of our local economy; the governor will not sign a bill that puts those jobs at risk," said Kelly Donnelly, his communications director.