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House Takes Historic First Step Toward Bridgeport Casino

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House Takes Historic First Step Toward Bridgeport Casino

After a passionate debate that stretched over two days, legislators took the historic first step Friday toward authorization of a potential new casino in Bridgeport.

In a bipartisan vote of 77-73, the state House of Representatives agreed to allow casino companies to compete in an open bidding process but stopped short of awarding a new casino in Connecticut. That would happen only after another House vote next year.

The measure still requires approval by the state Senate, and then a second vote by the Senate. The move, however, was a major victory for proponents of a Bridgeport casino in one of the most heavily lobbied issues at the state Capitol in recent years in a high-stakes faceoff.

The battle lines have been drawn at the state Capitol over those who want the Park City to be transformed into a major gambling mecca and those legislators who believe that the state already has enough gambling with two tribal casinos in southeastern Connecticut.

While Bridgeport has been mentioned repeatedly as the most likely spot for a new casino, lawmakers stressed that the bill calls for a “request for proposals’’ for a casino that could be built anywhere in the state. The word “Bridgeport’’ is not mentioned in the bill.

The measure calls for a total investment of $500 million and the creation of at least 2,000 jobs. Any applicant to the state would be required to submit an application fee of $5 million in order to ensure that bids are being made by qualified casino operators. Any nonsuccesful bidders would have the $5 million fee refunded back to them.

“This is a jobs bill,’’ said Rep. Steven Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat. “This is an economic development bill. This is a tax bill.’’

Under a two-step process in the bill, the legislature would need to vote again — after the bids are received — on whether to authorize any new casinos.

The next step is a debate in the state Senate, which is tied at 18-18 for the first time in more than 100 years. Opponents have vowed to battle against the measure, and three key Democratic swing voters could prove to provide the difference.

Uri Clinton, a senior vice president and deputy legal counsel for MGM, said he immediately went to see Sen. Ed Gomes of Bridgeport because the company is already looking toward the next step in the Senate. Clinton rejected the statements by opponents that MGM really does not want to build in Bridgeport.

“That’s just not true,’’ Clinton told The Courant. “MGM is in a position where we have made significant investments in the Northeast. … I would remind you that MGM has nine casinos in walking distance [of each other] in Las Vegas.’’

He said that a Bridgeport casino makes sense because the Greater New York City area has only two casinos — at Yonkers and Aqueduct raceways — and is an underserved area.

One of the biggest issues facing lawmakers is that the state receives more than $270 million in the current fiscal year from a slot-machine revenue sharing arrangement that the state negotiated with the tribes in the 1990s. Since the tribal casinos were opened more than two decades ago, the state has received more than $7 billion cumulatively in shared slot-machine revenues.

The money that the state receives is expected to decrease as soon as a new casino opens over the Massachusetts line in Springfield that is under construction by MGM Resorts International. The total is expected to drop to about $204 million in the next fiscal year and drop below $200 million in 2020 because of the Springfield competition.

Rep. Christopher Soto, a New London Democrat who opposed the measure, said the legislature needs to avoid making any moves that could threaten the money that the state currently receives from the two tribes. The bill is “incomplete and ultimately very dangerous’’ for the state, he said.

“We cannot run from the fact that we do have a compact in place,’’ Soto said. “Once the new casino is approved, we will lose money that we currently receive.’’

Opponents said it was a risky bet for the state to potentially lose $270 million, but proponents countered that the bill allows the tribes to compete on building a new casino in Bridgeport or elsewhere in the state in an open-bidding process.

During the lengthy debate, Rep. Joe dela Cruz, a Groton Democrat, said the state has become “married’’ to the tribes with financial entanglements over more than two decades and cannot afford to get divorced now.

“We lose the kids, the house, the cars, everything,’’ he said. “If we break the compact, we lose $270 million the next day.’’

But Christopher Rosario, a Bridgeport Democrat who supports the casino, said that businesses have been accepting “corporate welfare’’ in Connecticut at a time when MGM Resorts International is willing to invest nearly $700 million in a distressed city to create jobs.

“The Pequot Fund has been shrinking each and every year,’’ Rosario said. “The competition is coming. … What this bill does is call MGM’s bluff. If you’re really serious about coming to Connecticut, put your cards on the table.’’

A spokesman for the tribes, Andrew Doba, emphasized the financial impact from the money that is currently distributed to all 169 cities and towns.

“Any legislator who votes for this bill is going to have to head back to their community and explain why they voted to place millions in funding in jeopardy, funding that helps with providing services and keeping taxes down,’’ Doba said. “Those are tough questions to answer any year, but particularly in an election year.”

Courant staff writer Sandra Gomez-Aceves contributed to this report.

CAPTION Ariella Botts, 5, of East Hartford, was born with a severe muscular disorder called nemaline myopathy that requires round the clock care from a visiting nurse. Her mother, Rachel, talks about how the service is threatened by a state cutback that would lower the reimbursement from Medicaid. Without the visiting nurses, like Livia Brown, seen caring for Ariella, she would be in a medical foster home or a hospital or long-term care facility, probably at higher cost.

Ariella Botts, 5, of East Hartford, was born with a severe muscular disorder called nemaline myopathy that requires round the clock care from a visiting nurse. Her mother, Rachel, talks about how the service is threatened by a state cutback that would lower the reimbursement from Medicaid. Without the visiting nurses, like Livia Brown, seen caring for Ariella, she would be in a medical foster home or a hospital or long-term care facility, probably at higher cost.

CAPTION After 24 years in the US, Franklin and Gioconda Ramos must decide between returning to Ecuador or seeking sanctuary in Connecticut. Here, Franklin Ramos describes a previous instance of detainment based on his immigration status. 

After 24 years in the US, Franklin and Gioconda Ramos must decide between returning to Ecuador or seeking sanctuary in Connecticut. Here, Franklin Ramos describes a previous instance of detainment based on his immigration status. 

CAPTION Betsy Gara, Executive Director of COST, talks about her meeting with Dannel Malloy to discuss budget burdens for municipalities.

Betsy Gara, Executive Director of COST, talks about her meeting with Dannel Malloy to discuss budget burdens for municipalities.

CAPTION Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen has filed or joined a growing number of lawsuits against the Trump Adminsitration

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen has filed or joined a growing number of lawsuits against the Trump Adminsitration

CAPTION President Donald Trump is lashing out at Sen. Richard Blumenthal, calling him a “phony Vietnam con artist” shortly after the Democratic lawmaker said the investigation into Russian meddling in the election and possible collusion by the Trump campaign must be pursued. (August 7, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

President Donald Trump is lashing out at Sen. Richard Blumenthal, calling him a “phony Vietnam con artist” shortly after the Democratic lawmaker said the investigation into Russian meddling in the election and possible collusion by the Trump campaign must be pursued. (August 7, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)


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