Our View: Trouble brewing for tribes' joint casino venture
Nearly a year ago, the state implied eventual approval of a commercial casino run jointly by Eastern Connecticut’s two American Indian tribes, seemingly guaranteeing the venture’s success — even though the state’s top attorney at the time warned of legal uncertainty ahead.
After a tumultuous week in Hartford that proved Attorney General George Jepsen correct, the Mohegans’ and Mashantucket Pequots’ path to success is less clear. And that bodes ill for the more than 9,000 people their respective casinos employ — whose jobs depend upon stable business there — and for the entire Eastern Connecticut economy.
The tribes say their plan to build a third, off-reservation casino north of Hartford is all about protecting jobs at Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun — not about expanding gambling in Connecticut. MGM is building a $950 million commercial casino in Springfield, Mass., and our region’s tribes want to intercept the flow of patrons there.
The hurdles the tribes face, at this point, appear to be twofold.
On Monday, the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, with MGM’s backing, sued the state over the law passed last year giving the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribal coalition exclusive rights to pursue commercial casino development on nontribal land.
As Jepsen had warned, the Schaghticokes assert they, too, should be permitted to pursue commercial gaming, and the exclusivity enjoyed by the federally recognized tribes violates the Schaghticokes’ rights under the equal protection clause of the state and U.S. Constitution. The Schaghticokes have so far failed to gain federal recognition but have, for centuries, been recognized by the state.
The state Legislature, when it green-lighted the tribal coalition’s negotiations for a commercial facility in May, gave itself power of final approval over any deal. That gave the state an out in case the law’s legality doesn’t stand up in the courts. Today, it appears that back door was a wise addition.
That being said, the Schaghticokes reportedly were reluctant to admit their involvement with MGM, which reveals the lawsuit to be linked primarily to a business interest rather than a tribal or constitutional issue.
“After weeks of not returning phone calls from reporters, (Schaghticoke Chief Richard) Velky finally revealed that his operation is being bankrolled by MGM,” Andrew Doba, spokesman for the Mohegan-Mashantucket Pequot alliance, said in a statement. “This startling revelation — which according to the chief was a year in the making — should raise a red flag for anyone who is concerned about MGM's plan to steal jobs from Connecticut residents.”
It is unclear whether MGM has a solid interest in backing a potential Schaghticoke-run commercial casino — or if it just seeks to throw a wrench into the Eastern Connecticut coalition’s endeavor.
We are eager to see how the lawsuit plays in court, because if it succeeds, it will impede, and may even scuttle, the coalition’s plans. The fallout could be severe for Eastern Connecticut casino workers.
Meanwhile, the Legislature is considering another measure that aims to evaluate the “costs and benefits” of establishing a commercial casino in the state — a law the Eastern Connecticut coalition opposes. The state Office of Policy and Management and Department of Consumer Protection would be charged with analyzing potential state tax windfalls and, more to the point, the “geographic locations within the state where a commercial gaming facility could be located to maximize state revenues.”
Those geographic locations, for all anyone knows, may differ from the strategic area identified by the Mohegans and Mashantucket Pequots. That coalition and MGM have pointed to separate studies they’ve commissioned — which, unsurprisingly, reached different conclusions. An impartial study may be just the ticket.
And, perhaps more importantly, the law would require “an economic and legal analysis of the potential effects” of a commercial casino on existing slot revenue-sharing agreements between the tribes and the state — another uncertainty that Jepsen warned of in April, and one that evidently has not been clarified in the meantime.
There is still much to sort out, and MGM Springfield is slated to open in 2018. The clock is ticking.