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    Thursday, February 02, 2023

    Why not a commercial casino in Bridgeport?

    Having Uri Clinton, general counsel and senior vice president of MGM Resorts International, show up to testify at a Connecticut General Assembly forum aimed at finding a strategy to cope with MGM's new Springfield casino was a bit like inviting the fox into the hen house.

    And yet Clinton, a charming, smart, tall and lanky lawyer, sort of a corporate-looking Barack Obama, turned out to be the star of the show, clearly stealing the thunder of the Connecticut Indian tribes as they tried Thursday to sell their off-reservation third casino plan to the Public Safety and Security Committee.

    After all, Clinton said, MGM just paid $85 million for its Springfield license, will pay the state 25 percent of all gaming revenues, much more than the Connecticut tribes now pay for their two reservation casinos, and also will pay the host city another $25 million a year.

    Clinton more or less told the legislators they are being hosed by the tribal third casino proposal and are on the precipice of giving away a valuable asset, a commercial gaming license, for a song.

    Moreover, he made a convincing argument that giving the tribes a new commercial license for a casino in northern Connecticut not only would trigger a legal challenge by his company but could lead federal authorities to lower or even eliminate the amount of gambling revenue the state now gets from the tribal reservation casinos.

    The tribes now pay 25 percent of slot machine revenues in exchange for the exclusive right to conduct casino gambling in Connecticut, on their reservations.  

    Honestly, by the time Clinton was done, I almost expected some of the legislators on the committee, clearly impressed with his testimony, to stand up and applaud.

    "The more you talk, the worse I feel," Rep. Daniel Rovero of Killingly told Clinton, as the MGM counsel explained how the tribes are paying Connecticut much less than the new casinos in Massachusetts will pay that state and that the tribal fund money paid now might be at risk if Connecticut approves a third tribal casino off reservation.

    "You have made me realize how much the state of Connecticut leaves on the table," Rovero said. "I don't want to listen to you anymore."

    Unlike Clinton, who attended the entire session, nursing a giant paper coffee cup and chatting with lawmakers and other attendees when his testimony was over, Mohegan Tribal Chairman Kevin Brown sailed out of the hearing room at the end of his own testimony, not staying to listen to the MGM presentation.

    A lot of those who accompanied Brown, including construction workers wearing safety vests and hard hats, people wearing save Connecticut job pins, stormed out after the tribal chairman left. The theater part of the day was over.

    The senior vice president of a worldwide, publicly traded gaming juggernaut, however, stayed and quietly worked the room a bit.

    There's a lot at stake on both sides.

    Clinton, who of course has his own clear agenda — stopping a northern Connecticut casino that would compete with the new $950 million MGM Springfield casino — suggested a lot of reasons why the state should approach the issue differently than it has so far.

    After all, Clinton said, Connecticut is one of only two jurisdictions in the country right now weighing whether to issue a new commercial casino license.

    The licenses are very valuable and the state should not let the tribes or any other contender dictate the terms, he said. Just look at how the legislation was crafted in Massachusetts and Maryland, so that hefty fees were paid for gaming companies to even compete, he said. The eventual gaming tax rate was established and contenders were made to make significant concessions to host communities, he said.

    Brown testified that the tribes will negotiate later in the process how much they might pay in gaming taxes for their off-reservation casino, the expansion of their monopoly. Couldn't they even suggest some big number, at this late stage in their bid?

    In Connecticut, Clinton said, there is no question that the southwestern part of the state, because of its proximity to the New York City metropolitan area, is the richest market to mine and the most lucrative for the state to develop.

    He said casino companies would pay a lot to compete for a southwestern Connecticut casino license and a commercial casino there probably would pay Connecticut more in casino revenues than the state now receives from the tribes.

    He said he also has researched the terms of the tribe's compact with the state and that the tribal payments would continue while a new casino operator is identified, until a license is issued.

    Hello, Bridgeport. Here's an opening for someone to once again suggest this as an economic driver for your poor city, which could leverage its vast waterfront and connection to ferries, trains, highways and New Yorkers.

    If nothing else, Clinton's testimony proved the state needs a lot more information and needs to do some serious homework before moving forward with commercial gaming, a whole new enterprise.

    I suggest hiring the folks who helped Massachusetts and Maryland craft their laws, if it goes that way. The state certainly can't just act on some proposed bill coughed up by the tribes.

    I give the public safety committee great credit for convening the forum and moving along the conversation.

    I also give the Democratic committee chairmen demerits for refusing to hear from a coalition of casino gambling opponents organized by former Congressman Bob Steele of Essex.

    The coalition represents a wide swath of Connecticut churches, and they deserve to be heard along with all the "stakeholders" any time the General Assembly strikes up a new conversation about allowing more gambling.

    This is the opinion of David Collins.

    d.collins@theday.com

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