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Third casino shaping up as a tough sell

Third casino shaping up as a tough sell

New London Day, January 10, 2017

By David Collins

Len Fasano, in an interview this week with The Day's editorial board, looked like the big Republican cat that swallowed the Democratic canary, still getting comfortable with his new title, Republican president pro tempore.

Indeed, Fasano seems to relish the new respect demanded by Republicans in the General Assembly, after an election that brought them as close to parity with Democrats as they've been in a generation.

Fasano's successful power-sharing deal with Democrats, with the Senate now evenly split, came out of negotiations made with the threat of a Superior Court lawsuit, already written and ready to be filed.

The deal, which will give Republicans committee chairmanships and the right to call up legislation, also, Fasano suggested, will give them the ability to put Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, now a potential tie-breaking vote on legislation, in the spotlight, one that will give her a prominent voting record should she run for governor.

The lieutenant governor, for instance, might have to cast the deciding vote in the Senate on whether to consider a bill that would require that deficit-building union contracts get approval by the General Assembly.

The Republicans' new authority this year might help eastern Connecticut, with its Republican-rich delegation in the Senate, make new headway, especially with locals chairing the Appropriations Committee.

One local issue staked out by eastern Connecticut lawmakers that is getting a slow start, though, is the plan by the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes to seek permission to open a new casino north of Hartford, to compete against one by MGM in Springfield.

Fasano was bluntly skeptical in his interview this week — despite the enthusiasm for the new Indian casino by local Republican senators — that the new tribal casino can pass legal muster.

The Republican president pro tempore noted that the deal might get sticky if the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs had an opening to meddle in the compact memorandum that gives the state 25 percent of slot revenue from tribal casinos.

He also cited the inevitable lawsuit by MGM that would allege constitutional violations if the company was not given a chance to compete in some way for a new Connecticut casino license.

These two things seemed to be deal killers for Fasano, a lawyer who seemed otherwise inclined to help the tribes fight new competition from Massachusetts.

At this late hour, after the issue has percolated for so long, through several legislative sessions, I'd say the tribes are pushing a boulder up a hill, if they haven't managed to ease the concerns of Republican leadership.

I doubt Democrats alone could pass it.

Support for new casino back to top

At this point the tribes' campaign for a new casino, which the state should overwhelmingly support to protect a now-entrenched sector of the economy, is looking kind of haphazard and lame.

By now they should have a flameproof plan, one without legal loopholes, to present to lawmakers, who have a lot of other things on their plates this session.

I've long thought the clearest legal route around MGM's complaint about being left out of the running would be to set up a competition for a new casino license, like the one they held in Massachusetts that led to MGM Springfield.

But the one in Connecticut would require that the successful bidder not only pay new gambling taxes but also make up for the lost ones from the Indian casinos, if their exclusivity deal were breached.

That would probably leave the two tribes the only bidder for a new casino.

But, tick tock, the new session has begun and there is no sign of casino enabling legislation or even a plan of any kind on the horizon.

The Senate Republican leader doesn't seem worried about it. He's busy chewing the canary, delighted that voters seem to be responding to the party's message about bloated union pensions and rising deficits.

"You can feel it in the building," he said about the new atmosphere in the General Assembly. "There are a lot more conversations."