Competitive-bidding casino bill has its detractors — again

Hartford — If a proposed bill establishing a competitive-bidding process to locate a third Connecticut casino makes it out of the state legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee this year, it won’t be because the committee’s Democratic Senate co-chairman championed it.

“I haven’t seen it, haven’t talked about it — and I’ll never vote for it in the Senate. End of quote,” Sen. Tim Larson of East Hartford said Wednesday when approached outside his state Capitol office on the first day of the General Assembly’s new session.

Then he walked away.

It’s a far cry from the stance taken by the committee’s House chairman, Rep. Joe Verrengia of West Hartford, also a Democrat, who said the day before that he expects the casino bill to be voted out of the committee and eventually considered by the full House and Senate.

Some members of the legislature’s southeastern delegation also voiced opposition to the bill, if not quite as forcefully as Larson. Sen. Cathy Osten, the Sprague Democrat whose district includes Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, came close, though.

“I will not be voting for anything that involves MGM’s proposal,” she said, linking the competitive-bidding bill to MGM Resorts International, the Las Vegas-based operator that has long called for competitive bidding for casinos on nontribal land. MGM Resorts, which is developing MGM Springfield, a nearly $1 billion resort casino in Massachusetts, announced this week that it supports the new competitive-bidding bill, which is to be introduced by representatives from the Bridgeport and New Haven areas.

MGM Resorts has proposed a casino for the Bridgeport waterfront, a project that would require legislative approval. It also is seeking to prevent the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes from moving forward with their plan to build a casino in East Windsor, a project the legislature authorized last year. Larson's district includes East Windsor.

Osten said passage of the new competitive-bidding bill ultimately would cost the state jobs and revenue. Any breach of the state-tribal gaming compacts that granted the tribes the exclusive right to operate casinos in Connecticut would cause the tribes to stop sharing their casinos’ slot-machine revenues with the state.

“We did what we had to do last year to minimize the number of jobs we’d lose to Massachusetts,” said Rep. Kevin Ryan, a Montville Democrat, referring to the 2017 legislation authorizing the East Windsor casino. “I’m not sure a Bridgeport casino could generate the necessary revenue" to replace the loss of the tribal casinos’ payments to the state, he said.

Ryan said he understands that Bridgeport-area lawmakers “are doing what they feel they need to do” in proposing a bill that eventually could lead to a Bridgeport casino. “But I don’t think they’re being realistic about what it would do for them,” he said.

Sen. Tony Hwang, a Fairfield Republican known for being cool to casino expansion, said any renewal of the debate should include a discussion of the “societal costs” associated with gambling addiction. He lamented the fact that there has been no recent study of legalized gambling’s effect on the state and its residents.

Hwang said the federal government’s failure to approve amendments to the tribes’ gaming compacts — the subject of a pending lawsuit the state and the tribes brought against the Department of the Interior — “raises legal questions” about the East Windsor project. He noted that some believe the state’s granting of “monopolistic control” of casino gaming to the tribes is unconstitutional.

This week’s announcement regarding the new competitive-bidding bill drew a sharp rebuke from the Coalition Against Casino Expansion in Connecticut, which formed a year ago. It called for lawmakers to oppose the legislation, citing research indicating that regional casinos like the one being proposed for Bridgeport “drain wealth from communities, weaken nearby businesses, hurt property values, and reduce civic participation, family stability, and other forms of social capital that are at the heart of a successful community.”

The coalition of mostly faith-based groups noted that the Western Connecticut Council of Governments recently voted to oppose casino expansion into Fairfield County.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com 

Editor's Note: This version corrects the name of state Sen. Tim Larson of East Hartford.

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