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Testimony on gaming bills revives tensions between region, Bridgeport

Hartford — A daylong discussion of proposed gaming legislation rekindled a regional rift Tuesday, at times pitting southeastern Connecticut lawmakers against their counterparts from the Bridgeport area.

A recurring — and by now familiar — theme was whether the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes have the exclusive right to operate new casinos in the state and whether their existing tribal casinos should be granted the exclusive right to roll out sports betting in Connecticut.

One of the bills up for debate before the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee would facilitate the tribes’ joint development of a casino in East Windsor, a project authorized by a law enacted in 2017. The bill, championed by Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and the rest of the southeastern Connecticut delegation, would free the tribes of the requirement that they secure federal approval of their amended gaming agreements with the state before building what would be Connecticut’s third casino and first on nontribal land.

“The only thing holding us up is the Department of the Interior’s refusal to follow the law and publish the amendments to our government-to-government agreements in the Federal Register,” Rodney Butler, the Mashantucket chairman, told committee members.

Butler alluded to what he called “shenanigans” that allegedly have played a part in Interior’s inaction.

“Just a few days ago,” he said, “we learned that a grand jury has been convened to determine if anything criminal took place resulting from former (Interior) Secretary (Ryan) Zinke’s handling of our issue, and while we are anxious to see the outcome of the various investigations, we don’t need to wait for the outcome at the state level.”

“Passage of Senate Bill 11 would allow us to get started immediately and create jobs and revenue for the state,” Butler said.

The East Windsor casino would protect the tribes’ southeastern Connecticut casinos — Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun — from the competition posed by MGM Springfield, the nearly $1 billion resort casino that opened in August in western Massachusetts. MGM Resorts International, the Springfield casino’s operator, has proposed a Bridgeport casino and supports a competitive-bidding bill that would have to be passed to make it possible.

Uri Clinton, an MGM Resorts executive, reiterated “that MGM continues to believe that Bridgeport would be the best, and strongest, location in Connecticut for a commercial casino,” according to written testimony filed with the committee. “I know that many others, in the legislature, in Bridgeport, in the region and across the state share that view.”

Butler made it clear that neither tribe would participate in a competitive-bidding process.

“But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to help with the economic situation in Bridgeport,” he said, without elaborating.

Later in the session, Osten called the competitive-bidding bill a “direct attack on eastern Connecticut” because of the effect a Bridgeport casino likely would have on the tribal casinos’ business.

Osten, vice chairwoman of the public safety committee, questioned two of her colleagues from across the aisle, Republican Sens. Paul Formica of East Lyme and Heather Somers of Groton, both of whom staunchly back bills favoring the tribes.

Formica said the East Windsor project has been held up by “politics in Washington,” and that Osten’s proposed bill would “get things moving.” Similarly, he said, a bill that would allow the tribes to introduce sports betting at their casinos and via mobile devices anywhere within the state is the best way to move forward on that front.

“The longer we wait, the more we lose,” Formica said.

Somers sparred with committee member Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, over the competitive-bidding bill, which also calls for the creation of the Connecticut Gaming Commission. The tribes believe the mere passage of the competitive-bidding measure would breach the exclusivity provisions of their gaming agreements, which require them to share their slot-machine revenues with the state.

“If I were the tribes and the state went out for bids, I would stop paying us, too,” Somers said.

MGM Resorts also is looking for a piece of Connecticut’s sports betting market, as are other commercial operators, the Connecticut Lottery Corp. and Sportech Venues, which operates the state’s off-track betting facilities.

Bobby Valentine, the former Major League Baseball player who managed the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox and who has partnered with Sportech on restaurant locations in Stamford and Windsor Locks, was expected to appear on behalf of the operator.

"Sportech has invested significant money in the state and continues to reinvest every dollar, and they employ over 400 people here," Valentine said in written testimony. "I know that they already deliver responsible betting entertainment to customers across the state in venues and online, so an extension of their license to sports would be one of the simpler decisions in this process."

Scott Butera, MGM Resorts’ president of interactive gaming, told committee members that a competitive sports betting market with as many as a half-dozen operators would provide the best options for consumers.

“A company has to have size, scale and a sophisticated product offering to effectively and responsibly operate a sports wagering business,” he said. “Sports wagering is a low-margin business, so the economics need to work if the legal sports betting framework is to successfully ensure that illegal operators don’t continue to thrive.”

Butera is a former president and chief executive officer of Foxwoods.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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