- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Connecticut lawmakers voiced support Monday for giving local voters the chance to decide whether a proposed satellite tribal casino can be located in their communities.

The issue of allowing local referendums came up during a House committee vote on a bill to authorize the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans to open up to three casinos to help blunt the effect of gambling competition from casinos in neighboring states.

“I think for any town that’s going to do this, it should definitely go to a vote before the citizens,” said Rep. Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford.

The effort to amend the bill with language allowing local votes narrowly failed. But one of the main proponents of the casino bill, Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said she supports the idea of allowing a referendum.

Osten, who co-chairs the Planning and Development Committee, had urged lawmakers not to amend the underlying bill on Monday and, instead, wait for legislative leaders to craft a master amendment later this year.

“I think it should go to a referendum and I would fight for that as well,” said Osten, whose district includes the tribes’ two existing casinos. She said a lot of work remains to be done on improving the legislation.

The bill cleared the committee on a 14-5 vote. It now moves to the Senate for further action.

Currently, the bill authorizes up to three jointly operated and owned tribal casinos, which would be smaller and have fewer amenities than the tribes’ existing Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun. The legislation also says the location of any of those facilities would be subject to approval by the “legislative body” of the host town, and only after the community holds a public hearing on the proposal.

In arguing that the public should have more of a say, some lawmakers pointed out how Massachusetts held local referendum votes on whether to host a casino.

Rep. Bill Aman, R-South Windsor, the ranking House Republican on the committee, offered the amendment to allow a referendum. He also proposed limiting the number of satellite casinos to one and preventing state money from being spent on the project.

In addition, Aman said any memorandum of understanding for the project should spell out concerns from the host municipality. Some of those ideas could ultimately wind up in the final bill.

Monday’s vote marked the first committee vote since Attorney General George Jepsen sent a letter last week to lawmakers, raising various legal concerns with the bill.

In a joint statement, the Mashantuckets and Mohegans said they are willing to work with the state of Connecticut “to solve complex issues and problems,” such as whether the legislation could be challenged in court because of potential antitrust issues.

“Our government-to-government partnership has been strong and mutually beneficial, and we respect today’s vote by the committee to continue to move forward,” the tribes wrote.

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