Gambling bills in limbo as session adjournment nears

HARTFORD — With the clock running out on Connecticut’s legislative session, it’s unclear which bills, if any, that could lead to more gambling will make it to the finish line before lawmakers hit the campaign trail.
It’s also fuzzy whether the General Assembly will agree to instead spend money on an independent study of the issue.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz this week said lawmakers “need to move forward with a comprehensive plan of what gambling looks like.” But his comments came a day after the Appropriations Committee defeated a bill that would have funded an estimated $500,000 to $750,000 strategic plan for gambling expansion.

Meanwhile, lawmakers who want the state to create an open bidding process for a new casino aren’t giving up. Rep. Chris Rosario, D-Bridgeport, said he and his colleagues still support a bill that would require state agencies to develop proposal request from casino developers for a possible $500 million project.

“Until the clock strikes midnight on May 9, I’m going to keep it positive and I’m going to stay hopeful,” said Rosario, referring to the looming legislative deadline.

Some highlights of where the gambling debate now stands at the state Capitol:

CASINO EXPANSION

MGM Resorts is continuing to urge legislators to approve a competitive process for a casino.

The casino giant points to a recent opinion issued by Attorney General George Jepsen, which said such legislation would not jeopardize the state’s current revenue-sharing arrangement with the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes. The state currently receives 25 percent of the slot machine revenues from the tribes’ southeastern Connecticut casinos in return for the tribes having certain exclusive gambling rights.

“The competitive process bill was overwhelmingly approved by a legislative committee weeks ago, and it deserves a vote in the House and Senate before the legislature adjourns on May 9,” said Uri Clinton, MGM’s senior vice president and legal counsel. MGM has said it wants to build a casino in Bridgeport, which would create 7,000 jobs, and bring “much-needed revenue to the city, region and state.”

Aresimowicz appears unenthusiastic about the bill’s chances. This week, he said he was originally open to “exploring the possibility, but believes MGM still has not put their cards on the table,” claiming the company has only presented some “really glossy pictures” of a possible casino in Bridgeport.

Rosario hinted the Bridgeport delegation, coupled with allies in New Haven and elsewhere, may try to use their political clout to force a vote in the final days of the session.

“Time is running out on a lot of major issues,” he said, adding how if Bridgeport’s concerns aren’t addressed, “we may not be so supportive.”

TRIBAL CASINO

The Bridgeport delegation felt emboldened to push for a competitive casino bidding process this session because the tribes have not yet received approval from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs for a casino they hope to build together in East Windsor, to compete with MGM’s soon-to-open casino in Springfield, Massachusetts. The tribes and the state have sued the federal government over the delay. That federal approval was required in the bill Connecticut lawmakers approved last year, giving the go-ahead for the border casino.

Jepsen’s legal opinion this week stressed how that federal approval remains necessary, warning how the revenue-sharing agreement could be at risk if the tribes move ahead and open without it.

Democratic Sen. Cathy Osten, of Sprague, a chief proponent of the East Windsor casino, said she will be “making sure we’re shoring up the East Windsor casino” in the final days of the session, adding how she’s “working toward” a proposal that might eliminate the federal approval requirement.

SPORTS BETTING

Lawmakers still need to decide how they want to handle the potential federal legalization of sports betting, depending on how the U.S. Supreme Court rules on New Jersey’s challenge of a 1992 law forbidding all but Nevada and three other states from authorizing gambling on college and professional sports.

State law already required the Department of Consumer Protection commissioner to adopt regulations for sports betting, but the agency has said it needs more direction. Another bill sitting on the House calendar mandates the commissioner to adopt regulations when the federal law is changed. But some lawmakers argue they need more information about Connecticut’s market for sports betting and other forms of gambling, and claim that’s why an in-depth study needs to be approved this session.