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$25 Million Casino Licensing Fee Considered As House Debates Gaming Expansion

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$25 Million Casino Licensing Fee Considered As House Debates Gaming Expansion

House leaders are considering a variety of options in last-minute moves toward expanding casino gambling in Connecticut with just two days left in the legislative session.

The pressure is mounting with time running out in a high-stakes battle as the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes lobby to build a $300 million satellite casino in East Windsor to compete with a nearly $1 billion full-scale casino under construction across the Massachusetts line in Springfield. Although the Senate has approved the East Windsor plan, House leaders say they don't have the votes for that idea.

But in a move to revive the plan, the House was considering a two-vote strategy in which the House would approve the East Windsor casino as a package with a second bill that would include a hodgepodge of other proposals. Among them would be a licensing fee of at least $25 million because some House members say that the tribes should not be allowed free state approval for an East Windsor site on private, nontribal land.

In addition, the second bill called for placing slot machines at off-track betting sites in Bridgeport, New Haven and Waterbury in an attempt to win votes from legislators in those communities. A "boutique casino" has been discussed for Hartford that would include an undetermined number of slot machines and table games.

"I understand from the folks in Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven and agree that our urban centers not only need additional financial assistance, but need to have an identity and draw people in and be somewhere where folks want to go," House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz said. "If these mini-casinos and mini-slot parlors help with that, I'm in favor of it. It would bring people in. Folks would go there. The restaurants would benefit. The current OTB parlors would benefit. It would just be another reason for folks to go to the cities."

But in a fast-changing attempt to capture more votes in both chambers, lawmakers said late Monday night that the slot machine proposal at the off-track betting parlors would be dropped in exchange for sending more money to Bridgeport, New Haven and Waterbury from the Pequot-Mohegan Fund. The boutique casino in Hartford would also be dropped under that scenario, officials said. One proposal calls for legalizing mixed martial arts, which has passed in the House and is pending in the Senate.

As the House is running out of time for the two-bill plan before the legislative session ends at midnight Wednesday, lawmakers do not yet have an agreement with the Senate for the package, lawmakers and staff said. Senators passed the East Windsor casino plan with no licensing fee – a key provision sought by some House members.

But questions are being raised about the potential expansion of gambling across the state in multiple places off tribal land.

"The side deals that would add gaming in new forms and new places present a real and present danger to the state's revenue-sharing agreement," said Uri Clinton, legal counsel for MGM Resorts International that is building the Springfield casino. "The General Assembly cannot rely whatsoever on any assurance provided by the [federal Bureau of Indian Affairs] letter if the legislation that is approved differs in substance from the proposal that BIA reviewed."

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter of Hartford said Monday that gambling at OTB parlors is not a silver bullet for Hartford's long-term financial problems and deficits.

"I don't think adding slot machines at an OTB facility is really the economic development that is going to be a great boon to the city of Hartford," Ritter said. "I'll say that."

Ritter said he is not concerned about possible lawsuits surrounding an expansion of gambling.

"There's going to be litigation no matter what," Ritter said. "If we just did East Windsor stand-alone, it's in court right away. ... There's legal complexities no matter what you do."

Lawmakers have said that any boutique casino in Hartford would require local approval, but it was unclear exactly how the local process would work in East Windsor or any other community. A pending amendment calls for a referendum in East Windsor before any casino could be approved.

"I still think it's deep in negotiations," Aresimowicz said of the local approvals.

After at least two years of debates on casinos, Aresimowicz said he is not sure whether the issue will come up in a special session if there is no resolution in the legislature's final days.

"I'm not sold on that yet," Aresimowicz said Monday of extending the debate into mid-June and beyond.

He added, "The last I knew, we were looking at a slot presence in the other cities with a possible boutique-type set-up in Hartford. I really don't want to be vague, but nothing's been signed off on. There's not a bill in existence. It's still being talked about. ... It's a very fluid situation."

Rep. John Hampton, a Simsbury Democrat who is a key swing voter in the House, said casinos are "the Big Mac of economic development."

"It does nothing for you in the long run," Hampton said. "It's not strategic. It's not visionary."

Although the state has 16 OTB locations, the only three that are being mentioned are Bridgeport, New Haven and Waterbury. Hartford has a small OTB parlor, but officials say there is little support for slots at that site.

A company spokesman said Sportech, which operates the off-track betting operations, is still waiting for the details of the House plan.

"With 400 employees at 16 locations across the state, including those in the cities being discussed, Sportech has consistently and repeatedly stated that Connecticut must address the impact that MGM Springfield will have on our employees and the revenue we generate for Connecticut," said Ted Taylor, president of Sportech Venues.

Kelly Donnelly, a spokeswoman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, said that Malloy is chiefly interested in preserving the jobs at the two existing casinos in southeastern Connecticut.

"Gov. Malloy believes that on the question of casino expansion, the legislature should remain focused on maintaining the state's longstanding partnership with the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribal nations and protecting jobs," Donnelly said. "The casinos operated by these tribal nations employ thousands of Connecticut residents and are an integral part of our local economy. The governor will not sign a bill that puts those jobs at risk. We will continue to monitor this legislation as it moves through the House."

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