Some people are claiming the planned joint tribal casino in East Windsor can’t go forward without formal approval by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
They are wrong.
Connecticut now gets 25 percent of the annual slot revenues from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Tribe casinos. Last year, that was $265 million, close to what we get from cigarette taxes, and a lot for a cash-strapped state. But there’s a catch: the obligation to pay is in exchange for those tribes having the exclusive right to casino gaming in the state. That’s why the state is so eager avoid to losing casino business to MGM in Springfield, and won’t (despite MGM’s media blitz) allow it to operate here.
Connecticut worries that a new East Windsor casino might threaten that exclusivity as well. The worry is a bit far-fetched: how can gaming by an entity that is made up of the two tribes undermine exclusive gaming by the two tribes? But Connecticut really, really cares about its 25 percent. So the Connecticut law authorizing the new casino requires the tribes to agree that the new casino won’t threaten exclusivity. The law also required the tribes’ agreement to be approved by the U.S. Secretary of Interior, just in case the agreement counts as an amendment to the tribes’ existing, federally approved gaming compacts.
Interior approval is now the problem. The tribes duly agreed and submitted their agreement to the Department of Interior for approval. Interior looked at the agreement and wrote back that because as the tribes had agreed that the new casino did not violate exclusivity, formal approval was “premature and likely unnecessary.”
The decision makes sense. The argument that the new casino would be a violation or amendment of the initial compacts was never very strong in the first place, particularly when both parties to the compact agree that it is not.
Nevertheless, lack of formal approval might have left things at a standstill had Congress not anticipated this kind of no-action action. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act explicitly states that if a compact is not approved within 45 days after submitted, it “shall be considered to have been approved by the Secretary.” The Connecticut statute even recognizes this, requiring the agreement to be either “approved or deemed approved.”
Casino opponents are now trotting out another argument. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act also requires that notice of any compact be published in the federal register 90 days after it was approved or considered approved. It’s been 90 days, but because Interior doesn’t consider the agreement a compact amendment, it hasn’t published it. Some say that the nonpublication of the noncompact means that there isn’t the approval the Connecticut statute requires.
This is just silly. Congress would hardly have provided that Interior’s nonaction can’t prevent approval and then let Interior block approval by simply failing to publish. And it is bizarre to require Interior to publish something that it does not think is a compact amendment in the first place.
The fact that this argument has gained any traction at all illustrates the effectiveness of MGM’s lobbying campaign. Interior’s letter copied Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei from Nevada. What interest could they possibly have in a third casino in Connecticut … besides supporting of the interests of one of their biggest donors? MGM has also hired former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar as a lobbyist, and he has already visited Connecticut to lobby against the third casino deal. MGM is using lots of resources to ensure that any profits from casino gambling in our corner of the country go into its pockets rather than to Connecticut tribes and taxpayers. The power of their opposition shouldn’t mean that we accept specious legal arguments.