Connecticut Links Casino Proposal To State Revenues, Job Creation

CONNECTICUT legislators, business owners, and community leaders are debating whether to legalize casino gambling as a way to bring in state revenues and provide jobs in this economically troubled state.

The debate has flared up in recent days over an agreement - the first of its kind in the nation - signed two weeks ago by Gov. Lowell Weicker (Ind.) that allows a casino on an Indian reservation to use video slot machines. The machines were first used Jan. 16.

Gambling proponents are worried the agreement may slow efforts to expand gambling in the rest of the state. Large-scale gambling complexes are being planned in Bridgeport and Hartford.

Gambling proponents say the two complexes could give the state a much-needed boost. Heavy defense cutbacks have put thousands out of work in the state, which is also coping with a slowdown in commercial aviation, insurance, and manufacturing industries.

Mirage Resorts Inc., based in Las Vegas, Nev., is proposing a $350 million "urban entertainment center" for downtown Hartford including a hotel, convention center, six-screen movie theater, ice-skating rink, 1,500-seat performing-arts center, retail shops, and restaurants. The company's "Bridgeport Sporting Club" plan proposes a similar $300 million complex.

"Jobs is the major issue," says Richard Bronson, president of New City Development, a Hartford subsidiary of Mirage Resorts Inc. "[Connecticut] has lost 200,000 jobs in the last three years with no proposals in sight to help increase jobs."

Mr. Bronson says Mirage's proposals would generate 5,000 jobs in Hartford, 5,000 in Bridgeport, and 6,000 to 7,000 ancillary jobs in each city. Each complex could generate up to $100 million a year in state and local taxes.

But gambling opponents are concerned that the casinos will attract crime and prostitution. In addition, the state has yet to pass legislation legalizing casino gambling. Governor Weicker opposes expanding gambling.

THIS month, however, a state task force voted in favor of a plan to build the casinos. It also supported allowing video slot machines to boost the struggling parimutuel-betting industry. State lawmakers will take up gambling legislation this year, but they must win enough support to override the governor's veto.

Gambling proponents are also concerned about the agreement signed by Weicker that allows the Mashantucket Pequot Indians to operate video slot machines at their casino. The arrangement requires the Indians to pay the state $30 million in profits this fiscal year and at least $100 million a year in succeeding years. The agreement would be valid as long as the state's ban on video slot machines remains in force in the rest of the state. Some observers see it as a move to contain casino gambling within the reservation.

"The governor has opposed the casino on the reservation," says his spokeswoman, Avice Meehan. "However, as the governor indicated ... the Mashantucket Pequot Indian reservation is a sovereign nation. Their casino exists and he indicated back in 1991 and 1992 every willingness to work cooperatively with the tribe."

Some gambling opponents are pleased with the agreement, which they say will help contain casino gambling.

"It's a way to keep casinos and slot machines out of the city while they are in Connecticut," says Corey Brunson, researcher for Citizens' Research Education Network, a group that studies issues affecting Hartford.

But Mirage's Bronson says the agreement will give the tribe an unfair monopoly.

The recent video-slot-machine agreement resolves a long-simmering dispute between the tribe and governor. Slot machines bring in a large share of revenues from casinos in Atlantic City, N.J., and Nevada.

Bruce MacDonald, tribal spokesman for Foxwoods High Stakes Bingo & Casino, operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Indians in Ledyard, says their casino provides thousands of jobs. "The tribe employs 3,500 people at its casino, which has an annual payroll of over $60 million," he says.

The Mashantucket Pequots began operating the Foxwoods casino last February. The Indians plan to build two more casinos, a hotel, movie theme park, championship golf course, and museum on native American history.

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