- Associated Press - Monday, May 18, 2015

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Lawmakers are expected to vote this week on a retooled bill that would create a two-step process for approving a new tribal casino to help combat out-of-state gambling competition.

The latest concept could add about eight to 10 months to the tribes’ plans to open a jointly run facility, said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff. But he contends this new version will address the issues raised earlier by Attorney General George Jepsen surrounding the constitutionality of the process and protect the more than 9,000 jobs associated with the southeastern Connecticut casinos, owned and operated by the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Tribes.

“We don’t want to pass a bill that looks good only to have it stall in the future,” Duff told The Associated Press. “If we’re going to protect those jobs, we’ve got to make sure we have everything as buttoned up as possible.”

Duff said he expected the Democratic-controlled Senate to vote Tuesday or Wednesday on the revised bill, negotiated behind the scenes in recent weeks.

A copy of the latest working draft, provided Monday evening to the AP, would allow the two federally recognized tribes to issue a request for proposals to municipalities about possibly building a new casino.

Any development agreement reached between the tribes and a host community would have to hinge on action by the General Assembly. Specifically, the new bill said any agreement would be “contingent upon amendments to state law enacted by the General Assembly that provide for the operation of and participation in a casino gaming facility.” Duff said the new bill would limit the tribes to one facility, rather than three as first proposed.

The bill does not require a local referendum to be held to approve a new casino because not all Connecticut cities and towns use referendums, Duff said.

Tribal spokeswoman Patty McQueen said officials from the tribal nations “are reviewing the draft language and continue to have productive conversations with legislators about how to best protect 9,300 jobs.”

Last month, Jepsen sent a letter to state legislative leaders warning that the original bill allowing only the tribes to open more casinos could face legal challenges from other entities that say the legislation is unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause. He also said the bill as written posed “significant uncertainties and potentially serious ramifications for the existing gaming relationship between the state and tribes,” which currently provide tens of millions of dollars in slot machine revenues to Connecticut in exchange for the exclusive right to run casinos.

Additionally, Jepsen had warned the earlier bill could make it easier for other Connecticut tribes to open casinos if they win federal recognition.

Jepsen’s letter raised concerns among many lawmakers, worried the state could be putting much-needed state revenues at risk. Duff, however, said lawmakers worked with Jepsen’s office on this latest version of legislation.

Many details of a new, jointly owned casino will still need to be worked out by the two tribes, Duff said. For example, when asked if the state’s existing pari-mutuels will be part of the final project, he said that’s “something the tribes can certainly work on.”

“We’re not going to prevent them from doing that,” he said. “If that’s part of their business model, that’s part of their business model.”

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