Casino-expansion bill moves forward — minus repeal of East Windsor project

A bill that ultimately could lead to a fourth Connecticut casino made it out of the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee on Friday, after the panel removed a provision that would have repealed authorization for the third casino the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes expect to build in East Windsor.

Committee members voted 22-3 to approve the measure, sending it to the House of Representatives for consideration.

In its new form, House Bill 5305 still calls for a competitive-bidding process for casino operators interested in building a commercial casino in the state. While it does not specify a site for a casino, the bill essentially targets Bridgeport, where MGM Resorts International last fall unveiled a proposal for a $675 million project that promises to provide 7,000 jobs and includes a regional workforce development center in New Haven. Another bill would have to be passed to authorize a casino.

After Friday’s vote, MGM Resorts confirmed it would submit its Bridgeport proposal if 5305 becomes law.

“We continue to believe strongly that the proposal we have developed for a world-class resort casino in Bridgeport, and the thousands of jobs and millions in revenue it would bring to the city, the region and the state is in Connecticut’s best interest,” Uri Clinton, MGM Resorts’ senior vice president and legal counsel, said in a statement.

“Our plan has earned the support of mayors, small business owners, chambers of commerce, labor unions, council members, community leaders, people seeking good-paying jobs and their elected officials,” Clinton said. “Those voices absolutely deserve to be heard by allowing a full discussion and public vote on a competitive process plan. It is the best way for the state to compare proposals on a level playing field, side-by-side, to get the best deal for Connecticut.”

On Thursday, Bridgeport-area lawmakers pushed for passage of the bill during a public hearing in Hartford. When committee leaders indicated they didn’t intend to put the bill to a vote Friday, the Bridgeport interests renewed their plea.

MGM Resorts, the Las Vegas-based developer of a nearly $1 billion resort casino scheduled to open in September in Springfield, Mass., had advocated for repeal of the authorization for the tribes’ East Windsor casino, which is meant to directly compete against MGM Springfield. The tribes formed a partnership, MMCT Venture, to pursue the state’s third casino, on nontribal land, to protect their respective southeastern Connecticut casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.

MGM Resorts and MMCT have been sparring over the prospect of casino expansion in Connecticut for nearly three years. Most recently, the tribes have blamed the federal government’s failure to act on their amended gaming agreements with the state on MGM “interference.” That inaction on the part of the Department of the Interior has held up the East Windsor project, prompting the state and the tribes to sue the department. MGM Resorts has asked to intervene in the suit on the side of the department.

Tribal leaders have suggested that MGM has no intention of pursuing a Bridgeport casino.

“We remain opposed to legislation that weakens the strong ties between the state and the two tribes,” an MMCT spokesman said in a statement Friday. “Let's be clear, the only people who wanted to pit supporters of the East Windsor casino against supporters of a Bridgeport casino was MGM. Now that that provision has been removed, MGM can go back to their shareholders and tell them they weren't lying when they said that Springfield was their last major development in the U.S."

Jim Murren, the MGM chairman and chief executive officer, made such a statement in a conference call with investors last November.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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