MGM: New poll again finds overwhelming support for open bidding on casino

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In a sign that the state’s third-casino debate is on again, MGM Resorts International released new poll results Friday that show Connecticut voters overwhelmingly favor a competitive bidding process for a commercial casino in the state.

The results mirror those of a poll MGM Resorts commissioned in May 2017.

Seventy-one percent of the new poll’s respondents prefer “an open and competitive bidding process that would include all qualified developers, including the Tribes, to make sure the state gets the best deal,” MGM said in a statement accompanying the release of the poll results. Only 20 percent prefer granting the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, respective owners of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, the “exclusive right” to operate a new commercial casino “elsewhere in the state.”

The 2017 poll found that 71 percent supported a competitive-bidding process and 22 percent opposed it.

Shortly after the release of the earlier poll, the state legislature passed a bill authorizing the tribes to jointly develop a commercial casino on nontribal land in East Windsor. Months after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed the bill into law, the tribes cleared the casino site, but need a federal approval before they can proceed with construction.

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who had not seen the poll Friday, wondered how the questions were worded.

“‘If you’re in favor of open bidding, do you know the state could lose $280 million a year in revenue?’ Is that the way they asked it?" she said. “MGM’s going after two of the largest businesses in Connecticut that provide almost $300 million in revenue to the state and employ thousands of people from 140 of the 169 towns in the state.”

She said that combined, the tribal casinos are the largest taxpayer and the largest employer in the state.

Earlier this week, Osten and other members of southeastern Connecticut’s legislative delegation submitted a bill that would eliminate the need for the U.S. Department of the Interior to act on the tribes’ amended gaming agreements with the state, an attempt to enable the East Windsor project to move forward.

The bill could be taken up soon after the legislature convenes Jan. 9.

The tribes, in exchange for the exclusive right to operate casinos in Connecticut, agreed decades ago to pay the state 25 percent of their slot-machine revenues. The payments came to $272.2 million in fiscal 2018 but are projected to significantly shrink amid growing competition. MGM Resorts’ new casino in Springfield, Mass., which opened in August, already has had some impact.

If the state were to authorize another operator to open a casino, the tribes could stop making the payments of slots revenue. In that case, the state could face years without gaming revenue while a nontribal casino was being built.

“Breaking the compacts will cost Connecticut taxpayers $1 billion,” Andrew Doba, a spokesman for the tribes, said. “All the push polling in the world doesn’t change that fact. And it also won’t change the fact that MGM’s questionable lobbying tactics in D.C. are currently under investigation. I get why they would want to change the subject.”

The Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General has been probing the department’s handling of the tribes’ amended gaming agreements with the state. It’s been alleged that lobbyists for MGM Resorts have unduly influenced the process.

In an analysis of the new poll results, The Mellman Group, the Washington, D.C.-based outfit that MGM Resorts commissioned to conduct the survey, reports that respondents strongly support competitive bidding after being made aware of the argument that Connecticut “shouldn’t risk the jobs and revenue tribal casinos generate by allowing a non-tribal casino.”

MGM’s statement Friday said the poll results were released by advocates for a competitive bidding process, a group that includes proponents of a Bridgeport casino that MGM has proposed.

“I have been in Connecticut for over four decades, and I have built businesses that survived the rollercoaster that is the Connecticut economy,” Mickey Herbert, immediate past president and chief executive officer of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, said in the statement. “During my tenure leading the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, I was optimistic about our potential. I still am. I believe that we can build a new prosperity. But we cannot do it alone. We need the legislature to listen to the people and businesses of this region and our state.”

MGM said the survey found that 60 percent of eastern Connecticut voters support an open bidding process, while only 25 percent of the region’s voters support granting the tribes an exclusive right to build a commercial casino.

Poll results show two-thirds of Democrats and three-fourths of Republicans support competitive bidding.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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