Bridgeport casino bill tabled until next year

HARTFORD — Connecticut lawmakers hoping to see a casino built someday in Bridgeport said Tuesday they have decided to stop pushing for legislation in the final hours of the session that seeks proposals from casino developers.

Democratic Rep. Steven Stafstrom of Bridgeport acknowledged the prospects of the bill being called and voted on in the Senate "are tough, given the hour." The General Assembly adjourns at midnight Wednesday. He said a coalition of legislators from Bridgeport and New Haven plan to advocate for the bill again in the next legislative session, which begins in January.

"We're excited about where we've brought this this year and we think it gives us some real momentum going into the 2019 session," said Stafstrom, adding how many state Capitol observers had doubted the legislation would be called this year for a public hearing, never mind clearing the House of Representatives on a 77-73 vote last week.

The two-part bill requires the commissioners of Consumer Protection and Economic and Community Development to develop and issue a request for proposals from casino developers. Those responses, which would include everything from a market analysis to designs and a construction timeline, would be due by Jan. 1, 2019. The state agencies would then evaluate the proposals and present them to the state Legislature for a possible vote, although one is not required under the bill.

But southeastern Connecticut lawmakers warned that issuing a request for proposals, or RFP, would put Connecticut on track to risk its long-standing relationship and revenue-sharing agreement with the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, which own and operate Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun. Connecticut receives 25 percent of the casino slot machine revenues in return for the tribes having exclusive rights to certain forms of gambling. If a new casino is ultimately approved, that agreement ends.

Advocates of the RFP process felt emboldened this session to push for the legislation because a satellite casino proposed by the two tribes has been delayed, pending federal approvals. That delay is being investigated by the Department of Interior's inspector general office.

The General Assembly last year approved legislation that gave the tribes the initial go-ahead for that project, in hopes of protecting existing casino jobs from competition posed by a new MGM Resorts casino that is opening this summer in Springfield, Massachusetts. Democratic Sen. Cathy Osten of Sprague, who strongly opposes the casino RFP bill, said she had several amendments at the ready if the legislation was called for a vote in the Senate.

"I think it's philosophically a breach of contract," she said of the bill. "We just passed a bill last year. To come after it this year, to me, was bad form."

MGM has been lobbying heavily for the RFP bill this session. The casino giant said it will be back next year, encouraged the legislation had cleared the House.

Both MGM Resorts and the RCI Group released the following statement:

“We are tremendously encouraged that the competitive process legislation passed in the House this year, and grateful for the leadership of the Bridgeport and New Haven delegations that guided that progress. A year ago, the bill never received a floor vote.

This year it passed the House. That is significant. We realize that change is hard and takes time, and we respect the delegations’ preference not to dominate debate with this issue with much to accomplish in a short time in the session’s final hours. 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.