Tribes say letter shows new casino won't hurt slots deal

Apr 27, 2016 11:32 AM

Leaders of Connecticut’s two federally recognized Indian tribes informed state legislators Tuesday they’ve received preliminary assurances from federal officials that gambling agreements with the state would not be jeopardized by the proposed third casino they hope to open.

The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, owners of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun respectively, provided lawmakers with copies of a letter from Lawrence S. Roberts, the acting assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of Interior.

Roberts says in the letter that the existing agreements, which provide the state with 25 percent of slot machine revenues in return for the tribes’ having exclusive rights to offer slots at their existing casinos, “would not be affected by a new state-authorized casino” jointly owned by the tribes. They’ve proposed building a jointly owned casino in northern Connecticut to help blunt competition from the planned $950 million downtown casino in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts, which is being developed by MGM Resorts International.

“Working together with state leaders, we’re fighting to build a third gaming facility and mitigate these losses,” said Kevin Brown, chairman of the Mohegan Tribe. “This confirmation from the BIA is an important step in the process, and we want to thank everyone for their work.”

Legislators were warned last year by Attorney General George Jepsen that proposed legislation at that time could put the state’s revenue-sharing agreement with tribes at risk. He said that language could make it easier for other Connecticut tribes to open casinos if they win recognition. Also he said the legislation could be subject to constitutional challenges because it would give the tribes preferential treatment, by allowing only them to open a casino on nontribal land. Both Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun are located on tribal land in southeastern Connecticut.

That’s an argument made by MGM in a lawsuit against the state of Connecticut challenging the law ultimately signed last year to create a two-step process for the tribes to open a casino.

MGM Executive Vice President Alan Feldman said the tribes were overstating the impact of the letter from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He said they “asked a very carefully, narrowly tailored question in order to receive a very carefully worded answer,” adding how there are more questions that should have been asked of the BIA

“They didn’t ask the BIA to review ‘with great scrutiny,’ which is exactly what they’ll have to do if and when they want final approval from the federal government,” he said, adding how the tribes also did not ask about the “very valid constitutional questions” raised by Jepsen.

Roberts’ letter was in response to requests filed this month from both tribes for “technical assistance” on determining whether changes made to their respective gambling agreements with the state would be compromised if they included their new joint venture, known as MMCT Venture. The tribes said they wanted the assistance before submitting their proposed changes to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the General Assembly for their approval. Tribal officials have met privately in recent weeks with Malloy’s administration and certain legislators.

Roberts stressed that his letter should not be construed as a preliminary decision or advisory opinion. However, he wrote how the proposed changes to the gambling agreements reflect the “unique circumstances” of the tribes and the state and therefore should not affect the new, proposed facility.

A spokesman for Jepsen said the agency received copies of the Bureau of Indian Affair’s technical assistance letter on Tuesday morning and were reviewing them. She said it would be inappropriate to comment further.

The tribes have not yet announced a proposed location for the new casino. While they previously said they might push forward with legislation this session to amend the gambling agreements with the state, it now appears both those proposed changes and possible approval of the casino will happen next year.

“Securing this confirmation is seen as a vital component of the effort to build a third casino that will protect Connecticut jobs and revenue,” read a news release from MMCT Venture. “The tribes will use this language as the basis for a more complete package they will send to the General Assembly next year.”

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