last-minute struggle over a casino sought for Bridgeport flared up Wednesday, the final day of the Connecticut General Assembly’s 2019 session, but Gov. Ned Lamont urged lawmakers to abandon efforts to approve a deal with Connecticut’s two tribal casino owners for a Bridgeport casino.
A key lawmaker from Bridgeport had been working with colleagues to move legislation before the legislature’s midnight deadline, saying economic development is critical for the state’s largest city. The city was trying to get a USD 350 million casino deal approved with just hours left in the legislative session. His chief of staff, Ryan Drajewicz, called the terms “unacceptable.”
The plan would have dumped MGM's longtime plans to build on the Bridgeport waterfront, and instead let the tribes who run Foxwoods Resorts Casino and Mohegan Sun build a much-smaller resort. In exchange, the tribes would get USD 100 million in public subsidies and exclusive rights to offer sports betting in Connecticut. The plan would have almost certainly led to lawsuits from MGM and sports wagering companies that want a slice of that business.
The 11th-hour gambling legislation sought by Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim could include the terms of an amendment Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport, attached to a casino expansion bill that has been sitting on the Senate calendar since April, as they circulated Tuesday night among legislative leaders of both parties in the House and Senate, according to CT Mirror.
The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes would get rights to jointly develop a Bridgeport casino, retain their 2017 authorization to build an East Windsor casino to compete with MGM Springfield, and also have the right to develop up to three other “entertainment zone” facilities with sports wagering in other communities.
A spokesperson for Gov. Lamont released a statement: “This 11th hour proposal has not been fully vetted or reviewed, and with only one day until the end of session, it's not in the public's best interest to take up this matter." The statement continues: "Instead of resolving outstanding litigation, it puts the state at increased and immediate litigation risk from multiple parties."
In spite of the setback, Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim remains optimistic some sort of deal can be worked out this summer at a special session on economic development and highway tolls. Gov. Lamont has been trying to reach a deal that satisfies everyone, but for MGM to go along with it, the tribes would have to abandon the casino they want to build near Hartford. To that, the tribes reportedly said, "No deal," News 12 Connecticut reported.
Bridgeport’s talks with the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes come despite the city having worked with MGM on a casino concept for the past two years. MGM promised 7,000 jobs. Ganim says that the tribal casino would result in hundreds – maybe thousands – of jobs for the people of Bridgeport.
MGM provided Connecticut Public Radio with a written statement that said “conversations and proposals are certainly very fluid in the final days of the legislative session. We continue to track developments closely.”
What the mayor has described as a USD 350 million project actually is a USD 100 million casino to be built by the state’s two federally recognized tribes and casino owners. Another USD 250 million from unnamed private investors and public sources would fund improvements complementing the casino.
In return, the tribes would get exclusive rights to online sports betting and internet casino gaming, as well as some relief from the minimum contributions they are now required to pay the state under a decades-old deal to share slots revenue, and the East Windsor casino. Those are the tribes’ terms. They were rejected by the Lamont administration as one-sided in its earlier talks with the tribes, and House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said they most likely would be unacceptable to the General Assembly.
“As it’s written, I think it would be difficult to cobble the votes together,” Aresimowicz said. “But is it an excellent starting point for negotiations and maybe some clarifications? Yeah, I think a lot of work went into it. Having the tribes and Bridgeport on the same page is very important. They haven’t got there until now, so if this is the starting point, I think it’s a good starting point.”
Aresimowicz, Lamont and others are searching for a path allowing Connecticut to exploit a U.S. Supreme Court decision that lifted the federal restrictions on sports betting, leaving legalization up to individual states. But the sports betting issue is intertwined with the tribes’ expansion plans in East Windsor, opposition by MGM and other vendors seeking rights sport bookmaking, Birdgeport’s desire for development, and Connecticut’s unique reputation with the Pequots and Mohegans.
To win allies among urban legislators, MGM made its own bid for a Bridgeport casino in 2017, the year that the legislature permitted the tribes to jointly develop the casino in East Windsor, about halfway between Hartford and Springfield. MGM successfully lobbied the Department of Interior for two years to withhold a needed approval, which finally came in March. Construction has yet to begin as the tribes seek financing.
MGM is poised to sue Connecticut if the East Windsor project goes forward, arguing that its approval without competition violated the commerce and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Lamont has tried to coax the tribes to give up East Windsor and focus on Bridgeport, offering a share of the rights to sports betting.
“This administration has invested more than four months attempting to negotiate a fair, equitable and impactful deal for all parties involved in this matter, including Bridgeport,” said Maribel La Luz, the governor’s communications director. “At the start of those negotiations, the governor stressed the critical importance of an agreement which removed litigation, strengthened the partnership with the tribes and grows Connecticut’s gaming economy.”
The tribes say Lamont is too concerned about avoiding litigation with MGM. “Litigation is the cost of doing business, whether you are building a mall, a church or a casino,” said Andrew Doba, a spokesman for the tribes’ joint venture, MMCT.
Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport, and co-chairman of the legislature’s public safety committee, was working with Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, a strong supporter of the Mohegans and Mashantucket Pequots that operate casinos in southeastern Connecticut, to push for legislation regardless of Lamont’s opposition.
“We appeased the governor the first time and gave him almost four months,” Bradley said. “He made some progress. I think it’s unfair for him to say we’re no longer negotiating and we don’t want others to negotiate.”