Lawmakers are struggling with the legal risks the state may encounter in giving its blessing to a third casino in the state. The legislature’s Public Safety Committee heard more than nine hours of testimony in a public hearing Thursday, the majority of it on two bills which would open up commercial gaming in the state in different ways.
A partnership of the state’s two Indian tribes wants to build a casino in East Windsor, off reservation land. But rival gaming interests, including MGM International, say the state should open up the opportunity to outside bids.
At issue is whether either proposition would endanger the gaming compact the tribes already have with the state. That’s the agreement that sees 25 percent of all slots revenues from Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino given to the state’s General Fund.
Former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar wrote a letter last week to Governor Dannel Malloy warning that the agreement could be at risk, because his old department might not approve the necessary amendments proposed by the tribes.
But Salazar was writing in his capacity as a consultant to MGM, and Mohegan Tribal Chairman Kevin Brown dismissed the idea in his testimony before the committee.
“While I greatly respect his work as the Secretary of Interior, and his opinion, I would humbly submit that Mr Salazar probably never reviewed one gaming compact himself,” Salazar said.
The tribes produced their own expert witness, George Skibine, who also worked for the Department of the Interior, in the Office of Indian Gaming.
“When we review compacts, or compact amendments -- we review the amendment. We do not ever go and undermine the previous approval that was given on a compact,” he said. “You have hundreds of tribes with compacts. It would totally destabilize Indian gaming.”
The tribes say the real danger to the compact would come from opening commercial gaming to a bidding process, inviting outside companies to compete. If that were to happen, they said, they would regard the compact as at an end, and payments to the state would stop.
But MGM’s legal counsel, Uri Clinton, wants to see the legislature approve a competing bill that would allow his company to bid, and he disagrees with the tribes’ assessment.
"Have your beauty show," he told lawmakers. "Make all of the world class operators, including the tribes, come and make their presentation."
Representative Daniel Rovero said he believes the committee needs its own legal expert. “I’m really confused,” he confessed. “I mean, they say if we go out for open bid, it opens the compact. You being an attorney, you’re saying that it doesn’t. And I’m sitting here saying, what is the truth? But at this point I don’t feel comfortable making the decision strictly on my own.”
The tribes are warning that the state will lose thousands of jobs and revenue if it doesn’t respond to increased casino competition in Massachusetts, including MGM's Springfield casino, currently under construction.