South of the Border, a Casino Game of Thrones Begins…
UPDATED 3/12/15 11:13AM: For a correction on a quote. Senator Bobb Duff said, “bus out our jobs,” not “bust out our jobs.”
HARTFORD—Determined to counter the expansion of gambling in Massachusetts and other nearby states, legislative leaders, tribes and organized labor here laid out plans to combat increased casino competition along Connecticut’s borders. The proposal as developed thus far would seek to address immediate threats to Connecticut’s gaming and tourism business, but with the flexibility to neutralize as-yet unplanned facilities open in other states down the road.
Meeting with reporters in the Old Judiciary Room in the opulent capitol, supporters of the bill hammered the point that their primary concern was jobs and protecting Connecticut’s tourism and hospitality industry. Much remains to be negotiated, including where a facility would go and what the state’s cut would be. The bill calls for up to three casinos—if not full-blown resorts—with a priority for one north of Hartford timed to compete with MGM Springfield.
“We won’t let Massachusetts bus out our jobs,” Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff said, making clear MGM Springfield, only “five miles from the border” is the chief concern.
Democrats—who control both legislative chambers here—had offered only tepid support for expanding gaming after Massachusetts voters rejected a referendum to repeal that state’s casino law. Rep. Peggy Sayers, who represents Windsor Locks, the site of an off-track betting parlor near the airport, had been the loudest voice backing more gaming. Duff himself had closed the door on action this year.
Since then the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, which runs Foxwoods near Ledyard, and the Mohegan tribe, owner of the eponymous facility in nearby Uncasville, have stepped up lobbying efforts. Support from the tribes was a necessary condition as the gaming compact the state signed 20 years ago prohibits additional casinos absent the tribes’ consent.
Governor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, has seemed ambivalent, but open to facilities to combat competition. A spokesman for the governor’s office told WMassP&I he would render judgment on the bill when and if it cleared the legislature.
Legislators at the bill announcement, however, were adamant. “We will not stand aside and let any state…take jobs away from Connecticut,” said Senator Cathy Osten, whose district includes both Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. Duff and Osten were joined by the Public Safety Committee Senator co-chair Tim Larson and Senate Pro Temp Martin Looney, the Senate’s top Democrat.
Looney was perhaps the most blunt, saying the goal was to open a facility north of Hartford before MGM Springfield is slated to begin operations in 2017. Speaking to reporters, senators suggested that being a simpler casino, the build-out would take far less time than MGM’s projected 30 month construction schedule. All parties agreed, however, choosing a site is still further down the road.
Although House leadership was not present, senators claimed, that the House was on board, noting reps like Sayers and the House Public Safety co-chair Stephen Dargan were on hand, too. Dargan and Larson’s committee will review the bill at a hearing next Tuesday. Although the deadline for that committee to pass bills is only two days later on March 19, it would be theoretically possible for the bill to reach the House and Senate floors by other means.
Only a very rudimentary bill will be introduced for now, but as negotiations continue, it will take a more definite form. Among the issues that need hammering out are the relationship with potential host communities and revenue-sharing between the state and the casino.
The Pequot and Mohegan tribes would jointly run the new casinos under the proposal. Although not full-fledged destination resorts, the casinos would have slots, table games and probably restaurants. Kevin Brown, Chairman of the Mohegan tribe, alluded to plans to incorporate customer rewards programs to the entertainment, accommodations and other amenities to the resorts in Southern Connecticut.
Brown added that despite shifts in gaming in the Northeast, Mohegan Sun is profitable and has remained so, but unless the casino adapts to changing market, that profitability would only come at the expense of jobs. He called the tribes’ support, “A signal to everyone how important this is.”
Labor echoed that sentiment. Julie Kushner of UAW Region 9A—perhaps inadvertently emphasizing why Massachusetts officials, particularly in Springfield have so desperately pursued a casinos—said, “These are good jobs and they’re really important to our members.”
A representative of building trades unions said the tribes had committed to use union labor to build the facility.
Brown also took a lead on the economics of the proposal and competition from the north in Springfield. With a brightly colored map, he noted that the intended audience of MGM Springfield crept deeper into Connecticut than it did into Western Mass.
During a subsequent press scrum, Brown, whose tribe had unsuccessfully bid for a Western Mass license in Palmer and later East Boston, said Mohegan had always intended to develop a program that maximized the potential of a Massachusetts license, but did not harm the Connecticut casinos.
But Brown did address question about the concentration of gaming facilities in the region, saying he preferred the term “equilibrium” to “saturation.” “The market in the Northeast is reaching equilibrium,” Brown said, adding the onus was on existing facilities like Mohegan to recalibrate or get left behind. Indeed, Connecticut casino revenue has been in decline for years and Gov. Malloy’s budget projects it will fall this year, too.
MGM has not been an idle player in this development. The CT Mirror reported yesterday that the Las Vegas-based company that is building the new casino in Springfield has retained the services of Sullivan LeShane, a top lobbying firm in Connecticut with offices across the street from the Capitol.
Other X-factors are the off-track betting parlors, who could either be favor of or opposed to today’s move, and whether, as the CT Mirror also reported today, this leads to a broader conversation about gambling in Connecticut.