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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Fair play: more casino funds for towns

    The original deal allowing slot machines in casinos on tribal land in Connecticut was supposed to be a win-win-win, including not only the tribes and the state but municipalities. The nearby “host” communities would receive compensation for costs associated with education, emergency services and other impact, and wider circles of towns and cities would get something for the effects of increased population, particularly on public schools.

    That was then, in the 1990s. Now, with legal online gaming and sports betting earning more for tribal gaming enterprises under a revised agreement, the entire state is in effect a host community. In between these two eras came three decades largely defined by state budget shortfalls and rising debt. The state distributed less and less of the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund to towns.

    Things have stayed that way, as the General Assembly made a habit of raiding the slots fund to help balance the budget.

    Finally, the legislature’s Appropriations Committee is aiming to restore the funding, which towns are sure to welcome for dealing with inflation, rising utilities costs and the extra educational needs created by pandemic school closures.

    They will have to wait, however. The bill calls for new funding levels to begin in the 2026 fiscal year -- two years from this July 1 -- when American Rescue Plan Act funding has timed out.

    The plan is to budget $139,380,000 for the 169 towns and cities that year, the highest since Fiscal Year 2000. In recent years the allocation has stalled at $51.5 million.

    The revision, if passed by the legislature and signed by the governor as currently written, would come with measures endorsed by the lawmakers to keep their own and their successors’ hands off the towns’ share of the fund. To raid it would require a certification by the governor that an emergency necessitates reducing the allocation. A two-thirds vote in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, each, would be needed for approval of the reduction.

    Towns may welcome the reliability of that provision nearly as much as the allocation of amounts ranging from hundreds of thousands to several million dollars. Municipal governments have continually had to cope with reduced percentages from so-called PILOT funds -- Payment in Lieu of Taxes -- intended to compensate for government and non-profit hospitals and colleges in town that use services but pay no property taxes.

    Compounding that hardship is that towns usually have to adopt their own budgets and set tax rates before the legislature finishes tinkering with what the state will send them in PILOT money, Educational Cost Sharing and other funds. At least for the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund, municipal sharing will not be a game of chance.

    The details of how much would go to each town remain unclear. It stands to reason that the closer a town is to the traffic and jobs generated by either Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun, the greater the impact on roads, schools, fire departments, police and other public services. The Day supports recognition of the greater impact on eastern Connecticut towns. Sen. Cathy Osten, the appropriations co-chair, is a former first selectman of Sprague who understands the issues and seems to be seeking fairness for towns with this bill.

    If and when the revised municipal sharing provisions become law, the towns will have an ongoing, presumably reliable source of funding that will ease the transition from Covid-era federal ARPA money.

    Giving time to identify alternative sources was built in to the rollout of those funds. Do the math, however, and it is likely to show that compensating for ARPA funds makes up only for the shortfall of losing five years of increased federal money. The question of relying so heavily on the municipal property tax goes much further back, and it will resurface every year until lawmakers address what the 21st-century structure of taxation should be.

    The Day editorial board meets with political, business and community leaders to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Timothy Dwyer, Executive Editor Izaskun E. Larraneta, Owen Poole, copy editor, and Lisa McGinley, retired deputy managing editor. The board operates independently from The Day newsroom.

    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.