Economist advises Connecticut to fight for casino expansion
If more casinos are coming to New England, why not cut Connecticut back in on the expansion action and allow one or two commercial casinos elsewhere in the state?
“You shouldn’t just rule out opening the compact,” Arthur Wright, a University of Connecticut professor emeritus of economics, said, referring to the agreement between the state and the two Indian tribes that, among other things, pays the state 25 percent of the casinos’ slot revenue monthly.
Wright floated the idea Tuesday morning in a Mohegan Sun ballroom where academics, Mohegan tribal members and lawmakers had gathered to peruse the winter 2008 issue of The Connecticut Economy journal, which Wright edits, focusing on the impact and future of the state’s casinos.
Yes, Wright said, it could cause competition for the existing tribal-owned casinos. He said it could put the state on more equal footing with neighboring states in controlling their gambling sectors.
“But there’s no place in the government right now to think about that,” Wright said.
His plan may never materialize, but it was part of the latest discussion designed to dissect Connecticut’s casino industry and to talk about encroaching competition from nearly all directions. It’s a conversation state Rep. Denise Merrill, D-Mansfield, said she hears infrequently even though she is chairman of the Appropriations Committee and helps determine how to parcel out the 25 percent of casino slot win revenue — $430 million in fiscal year 2007 — the casinos give Connecticut each month.
“It’s remarkable to me how little this comes up, except in terms of when to spend the money,” she said, adding the state and the tribes are in a symbiotic relationship. “In a sense, we’re in it together.”
State Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, started the discussion before several of the presenters finished. She disputed impact findings she believed were overly optimistic as she whispered with her neighbor, state Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford.
“It’s the details that really impact the people who live here,” Stillman later told a panel with Merrill, Mohegan Tribal Chairman Bruce “Two Dogs” Bozsum and Wright. “Our roads are an abomination because they cannot handle the traffic.”
Urging the university to take a look at the broader picture, she said she appreciated what both tribes have done for the region, but wanted the state to have a different legacy.
“I’m highly opposed to Connecticut becoming the gambling capital of the world,” Stillman said.
Beyond discussion of the congested condition of Interstate 95 and speculation of what Massachusetts casinos could do to slot revenue, state Rep. Tom Reynolds, D-Ledyard, said state government, as well as the report, overlooked the long-term costs of 10 percent of Ledyard’s taxable land being taken off the property tax rolls to create the Mashantucket Pequot reservation.
The town has absorbed the cost of educating children who live on tribal land, he said, and Montville’s school district has found itself with a large number of students who speak Asian languages, children of the region’s casino workers.
“The state has failed to recognize this,” Reynolds said.
Stop the bleeding
But the time may be here for Connecticut to consider other options, Wright said, to staunch some of the predicted slot revenue losses at Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun. He said revisiting the agreement giving the Mashantuckets and the Mohegans sole right to operate casinos could add room for commercially owned casinos perhaps north of Hartford and around Danbury, a move that could kill the viability of casinos planned for western Massachusetts.
Neither tribe embraced the idea.
“To answer that question would require speculation,” Bruce MacDonald, Mashantucket tribal spokesman, said, “and I’m not going to engage in speculation.”
The proposal also got a lukewarm reception from Bozsum.
“That would take a lot of work,” he said, and would require state and tribal officials to talk about the issue together. “That would probably be a very important discussion.”
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