HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – Attorney General George Jepsen warned Connecticut legislative leaders Wednesday that a bill allowing the state’s two federally recognized tribes to open jointly operated casinos could face legal challenges from other gambling entities who claim the legislation is unconstitutional.
He said the proposed legislation also raises legal issues that “pose significant uncertainties and potentially serious ramifications for the existing gaming relationship between the state and the tribes,” which currently provides tens of millions of dollars annually to Connecticut’s budget.
The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and Mohegan Tribe currently operate casinos on sovereign land in southeastern Connecticut. They’re seeking to open up to three smaller facilities to help blunt competition from neighboring casinos, especially the planned MGM Grand facility in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Jepsen said a third party could claim that giving the tribes exclusive gambling rights in the state, including areas outside their reservations, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. He said a third party could also claim the legislation violates the Commerce Clause because it would grant rights to conduct gambling “for the purpose of protecting in-state economic interests from interstate commerce.”
Jepsen, who called a meeting about the satellite casino issue with Democratic and Republican leaders Wednesday, spelled out his concerns in a follow-up letter obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information request.
“We are unable to predict with any certainty how a court would resolve such issues,” wrote Jepsen, who recommended legislators include a provision in the bill that voids the law if a court determines that all or any part is unconstitutional or invalid.
Jepsen also warned lawmakers the legislation could make it easier for other Connecticut tribes to open casinos if they win federal recognition.
“The enactment of the proposed legislation, authorizing the tribes to conduct casino gaming under state law, could serve as a new trigger and would significantly increase the likelihood that newly acknowledged tribes would succeed in asserting the right to casino gaming under IGRA (the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act),” he wrote.
A spokeswoman for the tribes said they were reviewing Jepsen’s letter.
The bill authorizing the tribes to open satellite casinos is still winding its way through the General Assembly. It was referred this week to the Planning and Development Committee. Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said he believes lawmakers should keep the bill alive, but determine in the meantime whether the “serious concerns and serious questions” raised by Jepsen can be adequately addressed this session.
“The ultimate decision is ours because he’s not the legislative branch. But I think he made it pretty clear in the letter, going forward wouldn’t be one of the wisest votes taken in the Capitol,” Fasano said, adding that “maybe the casino folks can think of some way of making it happen” and perhaps Jepsen can “come up with more safeguards.”
The bill has been pushed heavily by the Senate Democrats. A spokesman said the caucus began examining gaming issues out of concern for protecting Connecticut jobs.
“We will review the Attorney General’s letter,” said Adam Joseph. “The gaming bill will continue to move through the legislative process as we examine ways to preserve jobs in eastern Connecticut.”
In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, the chairmen of the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans said some changes still needed to be made to the legislation, but they felt the issue of protecting thousands of Connecticut casino jobs has been well-received by lawmakers.
“I think in general, folks have been receptive. They understand the challenges that it means for not only for both nations but for the entire state of Connecticut. And everybody is focusing on addressing those challenges,” said Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantuckets. “It’s going well so far.”
Meanwhile, the Mohegans raised new concerns Wednesday about another bill that would allow the Connecticut Lottery Corporation to offer keno.
Charles Bunnell, the tribe’s chief of staff of external affairs, said there are “significant changes to the language” in this year’s bill compared with legislation passed in 2013. Those changes, Bunnell wrote, raise “deep concern for our tribe.”
Bunnell said the new bill no longer requires play slips for keno and may allow fully electronic keno. Also, the tribe is concerned language was removed preventing an online lottery.
The lottery is strongly supporting the legislation, arguing it needs to diversify its offerings in order to expand its customer base, increase the lottery’s retailers and continue providing a steady flow of revenue to the state’s main spending account, the general fund.
“We want to remain a sustainable source of revenue to the state of Connecticut,” said Anne Noble, the lottery’s president.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.