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“Politics” Delays Prospects for Gambling Expansion in Connecticut

Posted on by John Lathram

ConnecticutA holdup in authorizing a renegotiated gaming compact with Connecticut´s Native American tribes is threatening to delay an expansion of gambling that may ultimately include online poker. Allegedly, lobbyists acting on behalf of the MGM Grand Casino in the neighboring state of Massachusetts are to blame.

Last month, I reported on how a recent flurry of activity in the Constitution State had given some industry observers reason to believe Connecticut might be the next state to regulate online gambling. Although the current regulations prohibit interactive online games – and a report into problem gambling is not due to be presented until 2023 – it is not inconceivable the regulations could be changed and the timelines brought closer.

At present, the only state-sanctioned avenues for gambling in Connecticut are off-track betting parlors, charitable gaming, the lottery, and two tribal casinos – the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville and Foxwoods Casino in Mashantucket. A third tribal casino in East Windsor has been approved and proposals are on the table to put the lottery online, but a holdup in authorizing a renegotiated gaming compact threatens to derail any expansion of gambling for at least another year.

The Background to the Holdup

The two existing tribal casinos are located in the southeastern corner of Connecticut and attract patrons from all over the state. When the MGM Grand Casino opens in Springfield next year – just a couple of miles north of the state´s border with Massachusetts – the tribal casinos fear patrons will be attracted to the new facilities, their trade will suffer, and there will be a resulting loss of both revenue and jobs.

To counter this threat, the state approved a third tribal casino to be run jointly by the Mohegan Tribe and Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in East Windsor – around ten miles south of the new MGM Grand Casino. MGM opposed the plan – not only because of the threat of competition, but also because it wanted to open its own casino in Bridgeport in the southwestern corner of the state.

As part of the approval process, the state renegotiated its compact with the tribes. But, before the new compact can be signed off, it has to be approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior who oversees changes to existing compacts under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) 1988. This is supposed to happen within forty-five days; but, almost a year later, there has been no approval or denial of the renegotiated compact.

Who is to Blame for the Holdup?

Everywhere you look, the blame for the holdup appears to lie with MGM Resorts International. MGM spent nearly $4 million on lobbying in Connecticut last year in pursuit of its goal to open a casino in Bridgeport. Furthermore – according to politico.com – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has held “numerous meetings and phone calls with MGM lobbyists and the company’s Republican supporters in Congress”.

The politico website alleges the MGM lobbyists include Bush-era Interior Secretary Gale Norton (who only has one client) and Florida-based Trump fundraiser Brian Ballard, and that the company´s Congressional support comes from Nevada politicians Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei – both of whom have received substantial campaign donations from MGM (here and here).

The delay in approving the renegotiated contract has resulted in the Mohegan Tribe, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the state of Connecticut suing the U.S. Department of the Interior for an alleged dereliction of duty. However, MGM Resorts International is attempting to join the suit on the side of the Department of the Interior, claiming the East Windsor casino was approved by a legislative Act rather than by commercial bidding, and that the tribes are trying to circumnavigate off-reservation gambling restrictions by building a casino on lands held in trust by the federal government.

The Consequences of the Holdup

Due to the amount of money spent by MGM last year, the company naturally has some friends in Connecticut´s legislature. Possibly trying to deflect attention away from MGM´s involvement in the delay, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz recently told reporters the problem was that the state did not have a comprehensive gambling plan. He added that putting all the moving parts in place before the legislative session ended on May 9th would be “problematic” – a view mirrored by House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, who said passing a comprehensive gambling plan would be a “heavy lift”.

This apparent reluctance to move ahead with any gambling legislation before the end of the current legislative session will delay putting the lottery online and monitoring the effects online lottery sales have on problem gambling – an issue closely being monitored by opponents of online gambling in Connecticut. With regard to preparing the state for future online sports betting, online casinos and online poker, the ongoing legal action – plus a further suit contesting the approval of the tribal casino in East Windsor – could put back any expansion of gambling for a number of years.

In a last-ditch effort to resolve the chaos, the Mohegan Tribe and Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation have written to legislators, suggesting the renegotiated compacts are abandoned and that a separate agreement is drawn up between the tribes and the state for revenues generated by the East Windsor casino. The separate agreement – the tribes claim – would be authorized by state law and not require the approval of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Although this solution might overcome the holdup in pushing ahead with the East Windsor casino, it is unlikely to enable the passage of any new gambling laws in the short time that remains before May 9th.

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