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Well, maybe next year: Legislature tables gaming legislation for 2018

May 10, 2018 GMT

When the legislature’s 2018 session ended at midnight Wednesday, the state’s gaming landscape was much the same as it was when the session began.

Bills calling for the start of a casino-expansion process, the laying of groundwork for the possible legalization of sports betting and the development of a gaming strategy for the future all fizzled during the session. No “fix” emerged for the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes’ East Windsor casino project, snagged by a requirement of the 2017 law that authorized it.

Meanwhile, the much-anticipated debut of MGM Springfield, a nearly $1 billion resort casino in oh-so-nearby Massachusetts, drew nearer. MGM Resorts International, the Las Vegas-based operator behind the project, announced in April it was moving up the new casino’s opening to Aug. 24, weeks earlier than expected.

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MGM Resorts also was behind the request-for-proposals bill that would have enabled it to submit a plan for a Bridgeport casino. MGM Resorts had championed a 2017 proposal that similarly called for a competitive-bidding process. And, it indicated this week, it’ll renew the effort in 2019.

“A year ago, the bill never received a floor vote. This year it passed the House. That is significant,” MGM Resorts said in a statement it jointly issued with RCI Group, its partner in the Bridgeport proposal. ”… We look forward to working with the Legislature next year to continue to advocate for the benefits to Connecticut of a fair, open, transparent and competitive process. We are encouraged because we know this would yield results for Connecticut in terms of jobs and revenues, and we remain steadfast in our goal to build a world-class destination resort in Bridgeport.

“We plan to spend the months between now and then continuing to talk to the people of Connecticut — and their elected representatives — about the value of open competition, building on the substantial progress that has been made,” they said.

The tribes opposed the legislation, as they did in 2017, saying that since it could lead to the authorization of a nontribal casino, which would have required another bill, it threatened the tribes’ exclusive revenue-sharing agreements with the state. A breach of that exclusivity would cause the Mashantuckets and the Mohegans to stop paying the state 25 percent of the slot-machine revenues generated by their respective casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.

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In the immediate wake of the session, the tribes weren’t gloating Thursday.

“We thank our partners for standing with us and for understanding the importance of the jobs and revenue the two tribes generate at their facilities. We continue to believe that it’s in the best interest of the state to keep the partnership with the tribes at the center of any conversation about whether to expand gaming in Connecticut,” said Andrew Doba, a spokesman for MMCT Venture, the tribal partnership formed to pursue the East Windsor casino project.

The project, which is supposed to keep Connecticut casino-goers from flocking to MGM Springfield, has been stymied by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s failure to act on the tribes’ amended gaming agreements with the state. Interior’s involvement is a condition of the state law that authorized the East Windsor casino.

Late in the legislative session, the tribes suggested they could reach new agreements with the state that wouldn’t require federal approval. Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, backed the approach, but nothing came of it before the end of the session.

So, it appears the East Windsor casino’s fate rests with a lawsuit the tribes and the state filed last year over Interior’s inaction. The tribes contend that MGM’s lobbying efforts helped bring about that inaction, which may be improper, a claim bolstered by reporting by Politico and other news outlets.

A decision in the suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, could be rendered as soon as this summer.

In February, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and U.S. Reps. John Larson and Joe Courtney, all Connecticut Democrats, asked Interior’s Office of Inspector General to investigate the inaction. Earlier this week, they released a letter in which they bring new revelations to the attention of Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall, citing a Huffington Post report about meetings between MGM officials and an Interior official.

“Those meetings took place prior to the stunning reversal of staff recommendations to approve the amendments to the Tribal-State agreements,” the lawmakers say in their letter.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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