Casino expansion could be hot topic for lawmakers in 2018

Casino expansion in Connecticut could occupy state lawmakers once again when the General Assembly convenes in February.

That prospect seemed likely Wednesday, after the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes announced they’d be interested in developing a Bridgeport casino, if the state were to authorize it. MGM Resorts International, the Las Vegas-based operator whose Springfield, Mass., casino poses a threat to the tribes’ southeastern Connecticut gaming palaces, set its sights on Bridgeport long ago.

Jim Murren, MGM’s chairman and chief executive officer, rekindled the casino-expansion debate Tuesday, telling a Bridgeport-area business group that MGM is intent on lobbying the state legislature next year.

“Without question, the issue of casino expansion, particularly in Bridgeport, will be on the front burner of my legislative agenda,” state Rep. Joe Verrengia, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the committee that oversees gaming, said in a phone interview. “I think it’s great for the city of Bridgeport and for the state of Connecticut that we now have competing interests in building a casino in Bridgeport.”

Verrengia said it’s also likely that his Public Safety and Security Committee will need to deal with the legalization of sports betting, depending on how the U.S. Supreme Court rules in a case it heard this week.

“We write you today regarding the discussion over a possible casino in Bridgeport,” the tribal chairmen said Wednesday in a letter addressed to a half-dozen legislative leaders.

The Mashantucket and Mohegan tribes, respective owners of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, won legislative approval this summer for their plan to jointly develop a commercial casino on nontribal land in East Windsor. The project, still in the design stage, would offset the anticipated impact of MGM Springfield, the nearly $1 billion resort casino scheduled to open in September.

The legislation preserved the tribes’ exclusive right to offer casino gaming in Connecticut in exchange for paying the state 25 percent of their existing casinos’ slot-machine revenues. Amended gaming agreements call for the tribes to also pay the state 25 percent of the East Windsor casino’s gaming revenue.

“When confronted with a threat to this partnership, you stood strong with us and passed Senate Bill 957 into law during the regular legislative session, authorizing the construction of a new facility in East Windsor. We are moving forward with that project, and want to thank you for your continued support,” wrote the chairmen — the Mashantuckets’ Rodney Butler and the Mohegans’ Kevin Brown. “Back in 2015, our initial proposal would have authorized three new facilities, one in north-central CT, one in the Danbury area and one in Fairfield County. It was the Legislature’s decision to move forward with only one site in the north-central Hartford region.”

“If circumstances have changed and there is now real interest in putting a casino in Bridgeport, we want to be a part of that discussion,” the chairmen wrote.

In what appeared to be another purposeful move, Mohegan Sun announced Wednesday that it has agreed to schedule concerts and sporting events at Bridgeport’s Webster Bank Arena. Brown said in a statement that the deal demonstrates the tribe’s “commitment to bringing tourism to all of Connecticut, not just the southeastern corner.”

“It’s interesting that just a few months ago the tribes were dismissing the possibility of casino expansion in Bridgeport,” Verrengia said. “Now, with MGM putting their money where their mouth is, the tribes are interested. My understanding is that MGM has some investments in place (in Bridgeport). Competition is a good thing.”

Earlier this year, Verrengia sided with MGM in supporting legislation that would have established a competitive bidding process among applicants seeking to build a third Connecticut casino. He said any discussion of further casino expansion likely would cause lawmakers to “revisit” the tribes’ gaming agreements with the state.

“At the top of my Christmas list would be getting the tribes and MGM together to work out an agreement,” Verrengia said.

A compromise, he said, could involve lowering the percentage of slots revenue the tribes pay the state if other commercial operators are allowed to enter the market.

Verrengia described himself as a proponent of the legalization of wagering on professional sports.

“I want to put the state of Connecticut in a position where we’re ready to move forward on it,” he said. “I think it’s going to have equal or bigger impact (than casino expansion) on gaming in the state. I’d like to think I’m all over that.”

A gaming-expansion bill that the legislature passed this year calls for the commissioner of consumer protection to adopt sports betting regulations "to the extent permitted by state and federal law." The Mashantuckets and the Mohegans are on record in support of the legalization of sports betting, which they’d be interested in offering at their casinos.

“We’d have to look at all the options,” Verrengia said. “We should include ESPN in the conversation, too. It would drive up their ratings.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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