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Casino Deal Expanded To Include More Off-Track Betting, Sports Betting, MMA

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Casino Deal Expanded To Include More Off-Track Betting, Sports Betting, MMA

In a potential major expansion of gambling, legislators were debating early Wednesday morning on a two-bill casino proposal that includes an East Windsor casino, an expansion of off-track betting sites and possible sports betting.

The package includes a bill with gambling-related provisions and a second bill that has been approved by the state Senate that would authorize the East Windsor casino to be built by the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes.

In addition, lawmakers said another key element was the Senate's approval Tuesday night of the legalization of mixed martial arts matches for the first time on nontribal land as a way to help cities and win votes for the casino package. When a plan to place slot machines at off-track betting sites in Bridgeport, New Haven and Waterbury fell apart Monday night, legislators said it became more important to ensure that those cities could be helped if they want to host mixed martial arts fights.

The multi-pronged package was designed to win as many votes as possible and address the concerns of the gambling industry.

The measure calls for expanding the number of off-track betting sites to 24, up from the current 18, officials said. It also instructs the state's consumer protection department to begin establishing a regulatory structure for potential sports betting in the event of legalization by the federal government. New Jersey has tried to legalize sports betting in Atlantic City casinos to raise state revenue, but the move has been blocked by the federal courts.

"This has clearly been a major negotiation,'' said House Republican Leader Themis Klarides of Derby. "It's the best deal we can get now.''

Regarding the potential for sports betting, Klarides said, "I don't think it's a problem.''

The bill does not include licensing fees for the tribes to open the East Windsor casino, Klarides said. Even though some legislators had been pushing hard for licensing fees on nontribal land, they were eventually dropped from the package.

"The governor has offered Aetna incentives and GE incentives,'' Klarides said, adding that many businesses have been helped around the state. "We have to look at this as a jobs bill.''

Even with major changes in the state's gambling landscape, lawmakers said the full scope of the package was not apparent early Wednesday morning because some of the oral agreements would likely end up in the budget-implementation bill that could be passed in the coming weeks.

With the legislative session scheduled to end at midnight Wednesday, the pressure was mounting in a high-stakes battle as the tribes were lobbying 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 approved the East Windsor plan two weeks ago, House leaders said repeatedly that they didn't have the votes for that idea.

Uri Clinton, legal counsel for MGM Resorts International that is building the Springfield casino, said legislators had cobbled together a hodgepodge of provisions to patch the package together.

"It's Frankenstein,'' Clinton said in an interview at the Capitol. "It's probably the worst example of how to form casino legislation. This is: how do you get the votes for a bill?''

As part of the package, legislators said, the Senate approved the legalization of mixed martial arts fights 27 to 9 Tuesday night — before any casino debate in the House. The House had already voted 127 to 20 for mixed martial arts, which now goes to the governor for his signature.

In the so-called "sweetener bill,'' the state would also create an entertainment commission to help coordinate concerts because legislators have complained that the XL Center in Hartford and Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport have lost numerous concerts over the years to the casinos in southeastern Connecticut.

Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano of North Haven said the bill had expanded greatly beyond East Windsor in an attempt to placate legislators and gain support.

"I'm not exactly sure where we're heading on this,'' he said. "There comes a time when you've got to recognize what are you doing this for. Are you holding up legislation for political advantage when we really should be looking at the interests of the state of Connecticut?''

Fasano added, "This bill's always been viewed as a jobs bill. It's always been viewed as how we can keep our jobs in the state of Connecticut, and now it's turned into a Christmas tree that everyone's trying to hang an ornament on for their district, and I don't think that's an appropriate way of going.''

"This is the type of political posturing, gamesmanship, egos that has gotten the state into trouble of the past multiple of years, this type of thing, 'If they get this, well, we need that,'" Fasano said. "And then you end up not with good legislation, you just end up with legislation."

"I'm not a big casino guy,'' Fasano said. "The question for most of us has been : If this was UTC or EB or one of the other big companies, what would we have done to try and keep businesses here? This is something we would have done. It's not over the top. It's not costing us. There's no risk to the state. [The tribes] are taking on the risk. ... I still think there's a lot ... no matter what bill passes, litigation-wise, but that's their risk, not mine."

Courant staff writer Daniela Altimari contributed to this story.

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