April 16, 2018
EDITOR'S TAKE

Indecision on gaming policy exemplifies need for full-time legislature

HBJ Editor Greg Bordonaro

As lawmakers head into the final weeks of this short legislative session, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz said he was skeptical that his chamber would be able to pass any gaming legislation this year.

That's despite the fact that bills that could have a significant impact on Connecticut's economy and fiscal health hang in the balance.

Whether it's expanded casino gaming or legalizing sports betting and online lottery sales, you're talking about multimillion dollar industries that will continue to remain in limbo.

The main reason for the delay? Aresimowicz says the state needs a comprehensive plan for gambling.

If that's the case, the bigger question is why don't we already have that plan? All three gaming issues have been raised and debated at the legislature for years, so forward-looking legislative leaders should have already mapped out a blueprint — or ordered an economic analysis — for the role gaming ought to play in Connecticut's economy.

The stakes are particularly high as MGM Grand casino prepares to open this year in Springfield, Mass., which is expected to sap significant revenues from our Connecticut casinos.

The truth is, we shouldn't be surprised that lawmakers lack a roadmap for most controversial issues. We've seen plenty of past evidence that our state's part-time legislature is incapable of grasping the most complicated policy decisions. The state's long-standing fiscal crisis is the most glaring example.

Unfortunately, we've set up our legislature for failure. The part-time legislature model no longer fits the needs of the state. I've advocated for it before, but we need a smaller, full-time, more professional legislative body that can really sink its teeth into issues and come up with smart and fair policies in a more timely manner.

Our state legislators earn a base salary of $28,000 annually, so most have real jobs to supplement their incomes. As a result, lawmaking in Connecticut is really a part-time labor of love, although some legislators, especially in leadership, work full-time hours. Under those conditions, what type of talent do you expect to draw into elected office?

To be fair, the gaming issue is a complicated one, and adding more casinos or legalizing sports betting will not be the answer to our state's fiscal woes. Also, there are some decisions out of the legislature's control.

For example, the East Windsor casino project — a joint venture between Foxwoods Resorts Casino and Mohegan Sun — remains in legal limbo because the U.S. Interior Department has refused to accept or reject amendments to the tribe's longstanding revenue-sharing agreements with the state. Many believe politics has delayed the federal government's response.

At the same time, sports betting remains illegal in most of the United States, although the U.S. Supreme Court is now weighing whether to lift that prohibition.

The fact that it's an election year further complicates the legislature's ability to make decisions on controversial issues.

Regardless, these gaming issues have been before the legislature for years and the potential legal pitfalls have been known for some time. A forward-looking legislature should have contingency plans in place and be ready to act as soon as those issues are cleared up.

Unfortunately, they remain flat-footed. Of course, that leadership must come from the top, including the governor's office.

Most of our state lawmakers are well-meaning people and we should thank them for their service. But imagine in addition to your day job, you had to help run a state with a $20 billion annual budget and more than 3 million residents.

Is that an attractive proposition? To most it's not, and as a result we get what we pay for.

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