Connecticut bill that creates 2-step process for new tribal casino faces uncertain path ahead


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HARTFORD, Connecticut — Legislation creating a two-step process for possibly opening a new tribal casino in Connecticut faces a vote in the state House of Representatives, but the level of support in that chamber remains unclear.

House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said Thursday that the majority Democrats, who control the House, have not taken any preliminary vote counts on the legislation, which cleared the Senate on Wednesday on a bipartisan vote of 20-16. A closed-door meeting of House Democrats will be held next week, he said.

Sharkey was unenthusiastic about the original bill, which authorized up to three satellite tribal casinos to help deflect out-of-state gambling competition and protect jobs at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casinos. But on Thursday, Sharkey said he's open to voting on the retooled version of the bill before the session adjourns June 3.

"I think this is just a very preliminary step designed to figure out how the tribes might consider expanding if, in fact, other things fall into place," Sharkey said.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who has made it clear that he hasn't been pushing for the legislation, said Wednesday the new bill "partially addresses" some concerns he raised privately about the original legislation. But he said his office hasn't had time to fully study the latest version.

Under the bill, the tribes would issue a request for proposals to municipalities interested in hosting one satellite casino, most likely in northern Connecticut along the Interstate 1 corridor to help combat the planned MGM Resort casino in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts. Any development agreement reached between the tribes and the community, following various local approvals, would have to be reviewed by the Attorney General and governor's office.

Ultimately, a new casino could not operate until the General Assembly amends state law to allow casino gambling. The existing two tribal casinos are located on sovereign tribal land.

About a dozen activists, including members of the Connecticut Alliance Against Casino Expansion, gathered outside the state Capitol on Thursday to urge House members to kill the bill.

Former eastern Connecticut U.S. Rep. Robert Steele called the revamped legislation "a can of worms" that should be defeated. He predicted opening a venue for "convenience gamers," as described by the tribes, will lead to pressure to build more casinos as the gambling market becomes more saturated. Steele also echoed concerns originally voiced by Attorney General George Jepsen that eventually changing state law to allow a casino off the tribal reservations could make it easier for other state tribes to open a casino if they receive federal recognition.

Opponents also warned Thursday about the social ramifications of opening another casino. Davida Foy Crabtree, a United Church of Christ clergy member who previously worked in Colchester, about 22 miles from the two existing tribal casinos, spoke of families destroyed by gambling addiction.

"We cannot, we must not allow any more casinos — not this one and not any others in the future," she said.

Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, said he understands the revamped bill was crafted to protect the state's interests, but contends the legislation still moves Connecticut into uncharted territory. Hwang said he hopes his colleagues in the House of Representatives will consider the wishes of constituents who oppose more gambling in Connecticut.

"They're a very important part of this process," he said.

Patty McQueen, a spokeswoman for the two tribes, said both respect everyone's position on the legislation, but stressed that the bill is about allowing the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes to retain jobs and revenue in Connecticut.

"We look forward to a similar debate and vote in the House," she said.

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