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    Monday, May 27, 2024

    Lawmakers renew call for Lamont to address casinos' shutdown

    Tribal and casino vehicles block the entrances to the Foxwoods Resort and Casino property Tuesday, April 7, 2020. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Gov. Ned Lamont could only lament Thursday the rampant unemployment that’s accompanied the coronavirus-induced shutdown of the casinos, a circumstance that prompted the region’s lawmakers to call for action.

    “I feel desperately for the folks that were furloughed and then laid off,” the governor said during an afternoon news briefing. “Thankfully, we have a good unemployment compensation system. It’s on time, and we’re getting the payments out now ... so, I think that’s something that carries people forward for a while until we can get the casinos open safely.”

    He rejected the lawmakers’ request that he issue executive orders authorizing the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to operate online gaming and sports betting as a way to generate revenue while their respective casinos are closed. Both casinos are facing financial devastation.

    “Southeastern Connecticut needs your immediate attention, particularly as it relates to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun and the entertainment and tourism sectors that support our regional economy,” four senators and nine representatives say in a letter to Lamont dated Wednesday. “... The continued closure of the casinos is untenable. As the governor of our state, we need you to be a partner in reopening Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in a safe and responsible manner. Our casino employees, their families, and other colleagues need to know that you are committed to this region.”

    The tribes, among the top employers in the state, closed their casinos March 17 amid the coronavirus outbreak. They have yet to announce when they plan to reopen, though it’s clear it’ll be later than the governor’s easing of restrictions on restaurants and other nonessential businesses, which is scheduled to occur Wednesday.

    Neither casino is expected to be open for the Memorial Day weekend.

    “We’re not saying the tribes shouldn’t have closed down. We understand this is a health crisis,” state Sen. Cathy Osten, the Sprague Democrat whose district includes the tribes’ reservations, said Thursday. “What we’re saying is there has to be a way to ameliorate this situation. It’s like the governor’s not understanding what’s happening here.”

    Osten, who signed the letter, said the casinos’ shutdown has caused unemployment claims to spike in surrounding towns and has affected scores of vendors that supply the casinos. Norwich, she said, is a prime example, with more than 11% of its population employed by either Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun. Some 164 vendors in the city are part of the casinos’ supply chain, she said.

    The lawmakers say in their letter that Norwich Public Utilities' revenue is down by 21.5%, “a reflection of the fact that two of their top ten customers are casino dependent and therefore closed ... This same scenario is playing out across southeastern Connecticut in small rural towns like Montville, Preston and North Stonington just to name a few.”

    State Department of Labor data show that in 13 of the 21 municipalities in New London County, unemployment claims filed since the mid-March shutdown of nonessential businesses represent between 17.7% and 36.1% of the labor force.

    The lawmakers call on Lamont to personally engage the tribes to determine how best to assist them, support laid-off employees “and foster a platform for reopening Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun as soon as possible.”

    They also ask that the governor “fast track” health care coverage enrollment for out-of-work casino workers and sign executive orders authorizing the tribes to operate online gaming and sports betting, and authorizing the Connecticut Lottery Corp. to operate online keno and lottery ticket sales.

    "If EB (Electric Boat) were shut down, we trust that you would be in daily contact with their CEO offering your full support and engagement to get the company back up and running, and that you would do likewise for any other major employer in the state," the lawmakers wrote.

    Osten said Foxwoods might have been able to keep paying health benefits to furloughed employees if it had been able to operate online gaming. Foxwoods announced last Friday that it will lay off the majority of its more than 5,000 workers on May 31, ending their benefits.

    "I don't think Mohegan Sun is far behind," Osten said.

    Lamont said he has had conversations with tribal leaders and that dealing with online gaming and sports betting — long-running issues that have defied resolution — would take more discussion.

    “There are a lot of players involved in that who have strong feelings,” he said. “I would like to see this get done in a way that saves us from endless litigation. We haven't gotten this done in the last five years ... Now is a good time to have that conversation.”

    The tribes’ claim that their gaming agreements with the state ensure that they alone can offer sports betting in Connecticut has been a sticking point in negotiations.

    Lamont suggested the vendors hurt by the casino closures could pursue coronavirus-related assistance the federal government has made available to small businesses.

    Osten, reacting to the governor's comments, said he has no plan for addressing the region’s plight.

    “Ever since he’s been in office, he’s said, ‘I don’t want a lawsuit,’” she said. “But that’s what happens in government. People who disagree with you sue you. There’s all kinds of lawsuits against the state.”

    She said the people she’s talked to in southeastern Connecticut want to work, not collect unemployment.

    Paul Mounds, Lamont's chief of staff, said the governor would be speaking with the tribes Friday, and that he and David Lehman, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, also would be involved.

    Chuck Bunnell, a spokesman for the Mohegan Tribe, confirmed that talks between the Lamont administration and the tribes have been ongoing and said Lamont and James Gessner, the Mohegan tribal chairman, were scheduled to speak Friday.

    In early April, Lamont rejected the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments’ request that he immediately authorize the tribes to operate online gaming. That plea was expressed in a letter signed by all 22 of the chief elected officials who make up the council.

    "While I very much share the concerns you express about the financial distress the pandemic is causing our Tribal partners, I must decline your specific request," the governor then wrote in response. "Authorizing online gaming and enabling consumers to more easily access gambling is a significant policy decision that has not yet been embraced or acted upon by our legislature. Doing so at a time when so many Connecticut residents are in financial distress would be a particularly significant policy decision to make without legislative approval."

    Osten said new data on the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on southeastern Connecticut's economy have become available since the SCCOG request, giving her hope that the governor would reconsider his position.

    “Southeastern Connecticut continues to have among the lowest recorded COVID-19 infections in the state. We have done our part to flatten the curve due in large part to the quick responsiveness of our two Tribal Nations,” the lawmakers say in their letter. “Now we ask for your help, Governor, in restarting the two economic powerhouses of our region. Please help us foster in a new modern era of gaming in Connecticut.”

    In addition to Osten, the letter is signed by Sens. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme; Heather Somers, R-Groton; and Norm Needleman, D-Essex; and Reps. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme; Christine Conley, D-Groton; Joe de la Cruz, D-Groton; Mike France, R-Ledyard; Anthony Nolan, D-New London; Emmett Riley, D-Norwich; Kate Rotella, D-Stonington; Kevin Ryan, D-Montville; and Brian Smith, D-Colchester.

    b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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