As the state searches for ways to address an ongoing fiscal struggle, more and more approaches are being explored that might make an impact on the revenue side of the budget. Tolls, recreational marijuana legalization, and casino expansion have all seen some level of discussion. State Senator Bob Duff, State Representative Terrie Wood, and First Selectman Jayme Stevenson were at the First Congregational Church on Sunday morning, hosted by Reverend Dale Rosenberger, to speak with constituents specifically about casino expansion.
MGM has spent millions on lobbying and advertising in an effort to get the go ahead to build a casino in Bridgeport. There has also been talk of a casino site in East Windsor, which is a tribal project as opposed to outsiders. The Bridgeport casino would be a $675 million venture, and East Windsor would be $300 million.
There are a number of factors at play in considering the potential impact of a casino being built in Bridgeport. Rosenberger has become involved in the efforts to fight against casino expansion in Connecticut. Last year, the legislature gave approval to the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to build a casino in East Windsor, though construction has yet to begin. Wood voted against this approval, and Duff in favor for the approval. Rosenberger invited Duff and Wood so they might hear feedback directly from constituents in Darien.
Duff cautioned that the proposal to build a Bridgeport casino is still just that, a proposal. “It’s supposed to be more than a casino, according to renderings,” Duff said, noting that at this point renderings and proposals are really all there is to go on. Duff also pointed out that currently MGM and the tribes are sparring a bit as to the East Windsor versus Bridgeport casino, and, “they’re lobbing proverbial missiles at each other,” Duff said, adding that as long as that was happening, specific details about projects were likely to be scarce.
The building of a casino in Bridgeport by MGM would violate the compact the state has with the tribes. Breaking the compact could be done via passing legislation, which would likely be a long legal battle with the tribes. Duff also said that it’s possible that simply building another casino on it’s own could break the compact, but again that was likely to, “get thrown into court on the first day”. The compact states that 25% of all slots revenue be given to the state, which was just over $200 million last year. That number is down from previous years, as Wood noted that a decade ago it was over $400 million.
Should the compact be violated, that money would go away. Duff said that MGM has said they would pay that money for, “the first two or three years. The obvious question is, what happens after the third year. There’s a lot of questions, and not a whole lot of details.”
Stevenson then asked about the revenue from the slot machines, and where it goes and how it’s used. Duff said it has changed over the years, but most of it is distributed in what is called the Pequot Grant. A large chunk of that grant goes to municipalities.
Stevenson said that Darien receives about $9,000 from the Pequot Grant. “That’s going to go away. Under the new financial reality, most grants are being swept from towns like Darien. We do not and will not benefit,” Stevenson said. Stevenson also said that the leaders of towns that surround Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun have found that, “they were sold that casinos would be an economic benefit, and it’s actually the antithesis of that.”
Stevenson pointed out that casinos have many mechanisms that keep people in the casino like malls, restaurants, hotel rooms, and other things to keep you inside, not going to businesses outside the casino.
Stevenson would go on to say it was her belief that casino gambling, “preys on the most vulnerable.”
“And I would say that proposals to expand casino gambling in Connecticut are preying on the vulnerability of our weekend economy,” Stevenson added. The state’s financial woes are pushing Hartford towards considering solutions such as gambling, tolls, or marijuana. “Those are some fundamental questions that Bob, Terrie, and their colleagues will be wrestling with.”
Wood spoke about the passing of the approval for a casino in East Windsor, and noted that there were people on both sides of the aisle who voted for it, and who voted against it. “I voted against it. I do not believe casinos are a viable option to energize our economy,” said Wood, who called it, “a black and white issue. I do not support and will not support for any reason.”
As for the revenue, Wood pointed out that the way it has been used over the years has changed. “When casinos were voted in in the early 90s, a number of those funds were to go to education. Now it’s all going to the general fund. It’s just one more thing that’s promised for something, but is swept into the general fund, like so many other things we’ve done,” Wood said.
Wood also noted that the jobs that casinos attract are minimum wage jobs. “We are the only state in the country that hasn’t regained all the jobs lost in 2008. We’ve regained 76%. That’s as of last month. The jobs we are bringing back are minimum wage jobs, we need to regain those higher level jobs,” Wood said.
There were questions about possible environmental impacts. Wood and Stevenson both pointed out that the impact study hasn’t been done yet. However, Stevenson said that there are some studies from years back about increased congestion on highways and how that would need to be mitigated.
There was talk about casinos have actually drawn the entertainment industry out of cities like Hartford. “I was in Hartford the other day and I saw billboards for Jon Bon Jovi coming to Foxwoods, or Rihanna, those are shows that would have been in the Bushnell or the XL Center. Cities are the lifeblood of good economies, and our cities have been sucked dry,” said Rob Werner.
There were also points made about who casinos target, and how it is often those who can least afford to gamble that spend the most time in a casino.
“Connecticut seems to be pursuing policies that makes poor people poorer. Take the revenue from the slots. $200 million. That means $600 million comes out of people’s pockets,” Werner said, also pointed the lotto and cigarette taxes, both things that tend to be consumed at a higher rate by low income people.
Werner then polled the room, asking anyone in the room who had spent $100 on scratch offs or lotto tickets in the past year to raise their hand, and not one hand went up. “How about making it so people can afford more stuff, and not taking money out of people’s pockets,” Werner closed.
Duff spoke briefly about online gaming, which is something that was passed in New Jersey, and noted that, “state allowed or not, people are doing it.”
“It’s one of those things where technology has advanced and where people would go for the day to a casino, instead they just it on their phone,” Duff said, adding that the Supreme Court has said the states have the right to regulate it.
There was a question about the argument in favor the casino and how it’s being presented. Stevenson said those in favor point to economic boon.
“All three of us up here would agree our urban centers are struggling. I have different thoughts about what we need to do that don’t involve casinos, but we need to find a way to revitalize our urban centers,” she added.
Duff spoke about economic development as well, saying, “Bridgeport is a city that has changed over the decades. From largely manufacturing and working class folks, who then left largely because of crime or because manufacturing left, and the city never fully recovering. Yet, the suburbs around Bridgeport have flourished. So you see a development coming in that’s five or six million hundred dollars, folks in that community might say, rightly or wrongly, I’m unemployed or underemployed, I may not be in favor of gambling but if this provides a way to feed my family, maybe I’m all in on this,” Duff said.
“If we don’t think this idea is a good idea, then what are the ways in which we can come together to support our urban centers,” Duff said. “I’m in agreement that we should be focusing on what we can do to revitalize our urban centers. Not having Bridgeport realize it’s full potential, to me, is terrible,” said Duff, speaking about the beautiful coastline and other parts of the city that go underappreciated.
Seth Morton, the moderator of the Darien RTM, was present, as well, and spoke about the fiscal crisis in the state.
“We are sending an awful lot of money to Hartford, and we aren’t getting anything back,” said Morton, “the state seems to think we’re the goose laying the golden eggs down here. And that couldn’t be farther from the truth. So, yes, the casino is the tip of the iceberg to try and strip some more money. But there has been far too little discussion about controlling state spending. We need to see more of that effort, and less about gas taxes, tolls, or other ways to get more money.”
The demographic most likely to gamble in a casino is elderly, single women. “These are mostly underemployed, unemployed, or retired people. And we’re seeing clusters of embezzlement going up around casinos. Church treasurers, town administrators, all up and down the coast near casinos,” said Ann Hughes, who has been active in the effort to stop casino expansion. Rosenberger said a member of the congregation spoke about his father, who had become addicted to gambling late in life. Rosenberger also spoke about a sermon he preached about evil. “We all know there are forms of evil that are scary and menacing, and we recoil from them. We see them and we know it’s evil. But there’s a form of evil where we are willingly recruited in our own ruination. And that is much more dangerous, in my estimation,” Rosenberger said, adding that he believes casino expansion is a form of predation.
“Connecticut has an amazingly beautiful state that has so much to offer. The governor has put more money towards tourism recently. I would so much rather people come to Connecticut to see our history, our coastline, our ski resorts, then to have buses up and down I-95 shuttling people to a Bridgeport casino,” said Stevenson. The Darien constituency of Duff and Wood seemed obviously and vocally against casino expansion.