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October 21, 2017

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Connecticut House approves new casino, off-track betting, sports betting; MMA approved by Senate

In a major expansion of gambling, the state House of Representatives voted early Wednesday morning for an East Windsor casino, an expansion of off-track betting sites and possible sports betting in the future.

By 103-46, the House granted final legislative approval for a satellite casino to be built by the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes that will be visible from I-91 north of Hartford. The measure passed on a bipartisan basis on one of the most controversial issues facing the legislature in the past two years.

The casino vote was the first of a two-bill gambling package that also called for an expansion of off-track betting sites and possible sports betting in the future. After a short debate, the so-called "sweetener" bill passed 77-72 with two legislators absent.

The votes marked a stunning turnaround from only two weeks ago, when Democratic leaders announced that they did not have enough support to approve the East Windsor casino that had been passed by the state Senate. After the historic votes, the House adjourned at 1:45 a.m. Wednesday.

Lawmakers said another key element was the Senate's approval Tuesday night of the legalization of mixed martial arts matches for the first time on nontribal land as a way to help cities and win votes for the casino package. When a plan to place slot machines at off-track betting sites in Bridgeport, New Haven and Waterbury fell apart Monday night, legislators said it became more important to ensure that those cities could be helped if they want to host mixed martial arts fights.

The multipronged package was designed to win as many votes as possible and address the concerns of the gambling industry.

The measure calls for expanding the number of off-track betting sites to 24, up from the current 18, officials said. It also instructs the state's consumer protection department to begin establishing a regulatory structure for potential sports betting in the event of legalization by the federal government. New Jersey has tried to legalize sports betting in Atlantic City casinos to raise state revenue, but the move has been blocked by the federal courts.

"This has clearly been a major negotiation," said House Republican Leader Themis Klarides of Derby. "It's the best deal we can get now."

Regarding the potential for sports betting, Klarides said, "I don't think it's a problem."

The bill does not include licensing fees for the tribes to open the $300 million East Windsor casino, Klarides said. Even though some legislators had been pushing hard for licensing fees on nontribal land, they were eventually dropped from the package.

"The governor has offered Aetna incentives and GE incentives," Klarides said, adding that many businesses have been helped around the state. "We have to look at this as a jobs bill."

Even with major changes in the state's gambling landscape, lawmakers said the full scope of the package was not apparent Wednesday morning because some of the oral agreements among legislators would likely end up in the budget-implementation bill that could be passed in the coming weeks.

With the legislative session scheduled to end at midnight Wednesday, the pressure was mounting in a high-stakes battle as the tribes were lobbying to build a satellite casino in East Windsor to compete with a nearly $1 billion full-scale casino under construction across the Massachusetts line in Springfield. Although the Senate approved the East Windsor plan two weeks ago, House leaders initially said they didn't have the votes for that idea.

Uri Clinton, legal counsel for MGM Resorts International that is building the Springfield casino, said legislators had cobbled together a hodgepodge of provisions to patch the package together.

"It's Frankenstein," Clinton said at the Capitol. "It's probably the worst example of how to form casino legislation. This is: How do you get the votes for a bill?"

MGM has questioned the process in Connecticut, where many legislators have favored a no-bid casino on private, nontribal land in a process that did not allow open competition by casino operators like MGM or Steve Wynn.

After the House vote, Clinton said that the state "missed an enormous opportunity tonight to put in place an open, transparent, and competitive casino process which could have resulted in as much as $1 billion in economic development, the creation of thousands of jobs, and a licensing fee paid to the state of up to $100 million. What Connecticut got instead was far less than that."

Clinton added, "We will continue to vigorously advocate in the courts as we seek to protect the constitutional rights of any company hoping to do business in Connecticut. And that, ultimately, is what our goal has always been: We'd like the chance to compete to do business in Connecticut."

The tribes said that the jointly built casino would create more than 4,000 jobs -- plus another 2,300 construction jobs for the building trades. The 200,000-square-foot structure, which would be smaller than the Springfield complex, would have 2,000 slot machines and 50 to 150 table games.

"There are families across the state breathing a sigh of relief tonight thanks to leaders in both chambers and from both parties," Mohegan Tribal Council chairman Kevin Brown said in a statement. "With this vote, we have all demonstrated a commitment to protecting the state of Connecticut and the good jobs of its residents."

During the debate, Rep. Christopher Davis of Ellington offered an amendment calling for a referendum in East Windsor before the casino could be approved. Various states, such as New Jersey, and other communities have had similar votes by the general public on casinos. The House rejected the plans for the referendum 90-59 early Wednesday.

"I stand here today willing to support a casino in East Windsor," Davis said. "There are some constitutional issues that might come. That is to be adjudicated by the courts."

Rep. Joe Verrengia, a West Hartford Democrat who co-chairs the committee that oversees gambling, opposed the bill after saying he was concerned about the lack of competition for a casino on private, nontribal land -- adding that the state could be risking the $267 million that the state currently receives from the tribes.

As part of the package, legislators said, the Senate approved the legalization of mixed martial arts fights 27-9 Tuesday night -- before any casino debate in the House. The House had already voted 127-20 for mixed martial arts, which now goes to the governor for his signature.

In the so-called "sweetener bill," the state would also create an entertainment advisory commission to help coordinate concerts because legislators have complained that the XL Center in Hartford and Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport have lost numerous concerts over the years to the casinos in southeastern Connecticut. The plan would cover venues that have more than 5,000 seats.

Based on the smiles in the Capitol, the tribes and their supporters were happy Tuesday night before the debate began. The tribes had investigated 18 sites before choosing the East Windsor site of a long-closed movie theater complex that is visible from I-91. The movie theaters will be leveled, and the tribes will build a new facility that could take 18 to 24 months to build, officials said.

Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano of North Haven said the bill had expanded greatly beyond East Windsor in an attempt to placate legislators and gain support.

"I'm not exactly sure where we're heading on this," he said. "There comes a time when you've got to recognize what are you doing this for. Are you holding up legislation for political advantage when we really should be looking at the interests of the state of Connecticut?"

Fasano added, "This bill's always been viewed as a jobs bill. It's always been viewed as how we can keep our jobs in the state of Connecticut, and now it's turned into a Christmas tree that everyone's trying to hang an ornament on for their district, and I don't think that's an appropriate way of going."

"This is the type of political posturing, gamesmanship, egos that has gotten the state into trouble of the past multiple of years, this type of thing, 'If they get this, well, we need that,'" Fasano said. "And then you end up not with good legislation, you just end up with legislation."

"I'm not a big casino guy," Fasano said. "The question for most of us has been : If this was UTC or EB or one of the other big companies, what would we have done to try and keep businesses here? This is something we would have done. It's not over the top. It's not costing us. There's no risk to the state. [The tribes] are taking on the risk. ... I still think there's a lot ... no matter what bill passes, litigation-wise, but that's their risk, not mine."

Courant staff writer Daniela Altimari contributed to this report.