- Associated Press - Saturday, April 18, 2015

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - When Connecticut lawmakers last considered expanding casino gambling back in 1995, the process was vastly different from this year’s proposition.

Twenty years ago, the state’s Division of Special Revenue issued a request for proposals from casino operators who wanted to open a facility in Bridgeport. Potential developers had to provide an irrevocable $610 million letter of credit and team of state officials evaluated the proposals for things like financial qualifications, business approach and potential for maximizing state revenues. The project was ultimately defeated by the state Senate.

This time around, there’s no question about who would develop a new casino, if the idea is ultimately approved.

The year’s bill, which faces a vote in the General Assembly’s Planning and Development Committee on Monday, specifically authorizes only the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal nations - owners and operators of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun - to open up to three jointly owned, smaller casinos on unspecified, non-tribal land. It is part of an effort to minimize the effect of gambling competition from neighboring states, especially the planned MGM Resorts casino in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts.

“This is a proactive move to protect jobs in Connecticut. Both Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun are two of the top employers in eastern Connecticut, and they drive a lot of the tourism and hospitality businesses in the area,” said state Sen. Catherine Osten, D-Sprague, last month. “We go to great lengths in Connecticut to protect and grow jobs in aerospace, defense, manufacturing, biotech and cable media. We should be doing the same for tourism, entertainment and gaming.”

Such partiality toward the state’s two federally recognized tribes is part of what prompted Attorney General George Jepsen on Wednesday to warn Democratic and Republican legislative leaders about several potential issues with the legislation. For example, he said the bill as written could prompt third-party court challenges from groups who claim that granting the exclusive right to open a casino, especially off tribal land, could violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The General Assembly’s nonpartisan Office of Legislative Research has raised similar issues, saying the bill could raise state constitutional questions as well.

In a recently released analysis of the bill, the office said a provision in Connecticut’s constitution stating “no man or set of men are entitled to exclusive public emoluments or privileges from the community” has been referenced by the Connecticut Supreme Court when it invalidated state laws that grant privileges to individuals when there isn’t a valid public purpose.

The same OLR report also mentions how “the Connecticut Antitrust Act prohibits any contract or conspiracy to monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, a part of trade,” and then warns “the bill could conceivably be construed to have anticompetitive effects in violation of this law.”

Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, the co-chairman of the legislative committee that oversees gambling issues back in 1995 and today, said lawmakers anticipated anti-trust issues would arise when they first put together an early version of the bill. But he said they decided to “throw something out there, at least to have a conversation.”

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said attorneys are now looking at numerous issues, such as whether the state’s compact with the tribes supersedes the rights of other potential casino developers who might want to operate in Connecticut. He called it “complicated legislation” and lawmakers are continuing to review Jepsen’s memo to try and protect jobs.

“It’s not something where the answer easily presents itself but it is something we think we can work through,” Duff said.

Big names in casinos, including Trump and Wynn, expressed interest in opening a casino in Bridgeport back in the 1990s. Ultimately, the Mashantucket Pequots were selected in 1995 by former Gov. John G. Rowland as the preferred developer for the $875 million project, which would not have been built on tribal land. However, the state Senate defeated the legislation, 24-to-10, ending four years of debate over whether casinos should be located off tribal reservations.

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