A Las Vegas casino developer suggested last week that Connecticut consider legalized gambling to boost the economies of the state's struggling cities.
Leading Connecticut legislators predict the issue will be on the agenda during the state's next legislative session, which begins Jan. 4.
Cities and states across the country are considering the same move. New Orleans and Chicago are among those looking to casino revenues as a possible alternative to higher taxes or service fees.
In Connecticut, revenue strapped Bridgeport and Hartford are talked about as possible casino sites. Some gambling experts say the cities could reap between $150 million and $200 million per year, per facility, in revenues and lobs.
Steve Wynn, chief executive officer and developer of several casinos including the Mirage and the Golden Nugget, addressed several business and legislative groups in Connecticut last week about what casinos could do for an area.
At a conference that included legislative leaders and the Casino Gaming Commission, Wynn recommended legalizing casino gambling and building a convention center that includes a casino in both Hartford and Bridgeport. He said each facility could provide between $125 million and $150 million to those cities per year.
Although these proposals have garnered support from several prominent state leaders, Gov. Lowell S. Weicker remains a staunch opponent to legalized gambling, according to a representative of the governor's office.
There is already limited casino gambling in Connecticut at Foxwoods Casino. But the facility is on the federally protected Mashantucket-Pequot Indian reservation, meaning the state collects no taxes on the revenues.
Rep. Richard Mulready, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the State Finance Committee, said in an interview that the Indian gaming facility "could generate between $125 million t7o $150 million per year to the area" if the state could collect taxes and fees.
"That figure is not out of line," said Alan Feldman, vice president of public relations for Mirage Resorts Inc. "With income, sales. and room taxes combined with the indirect revenues produced in an area, that figure is well within the scope. "
Indirect revenues include additional jobs as well as benefits to other local businesses, Feldman said.
Mulready said it is "conceivable" that bipartisan support would exist for the casinos.
"I think there is enough support to pass legislation allowing for limited casinos," Mulready said. "It will be much tougher, though. to get enough votes for an override" of a veto by the governor.
"The governor is completely opposed to casino gambling," said Avice Meehan, Weicker's spokeswoman. "He has a more ambitious program for the state's work force. "
Meehan said the governor does not believe casino jobs are proper preparation for the next era of industrial growth in the state.
Also, Weicker wants no part of the organized crime, prostitution, and robbery that could accompany the legalization of gambling, Meehan said.
"Gov. Weicker's opposition to gambling is somewhat parochial," said Steven L. Patricola, vice president of high-yield research at Citicorp Securities Markets. "The current facility operating on the Indian reservation is exceeding all expectations profitability."
Patricola said the average yearly salary of a Las Vegas casino worker hovers near $27,600 per year.
"His opposition appears to be more of a condemnation of the activity," Patricola said.
Feldman said the proposed facilities in Connecticut would be different than casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas.
"We are proposing more of an entertainment center," he said. "There would be a convention center, a 600-room hotel, a bowling alley or movie complex, and many retail shops." he explained.
Visitors would not have to go through the casino to use the other parts of the center, as is the case with some larger gambling centers, he added.
Feldman also addressed concerns voiced by legislators and the governor over compulsive gambling.
"There already is a problem in the state with compulsive gambling," Feldman said. "But a casino has not proven to increase the compulsive gambling problems of a society anywhere else in the country. "
He added that Connecticut already has dog racing, the game jai-alai, a state-sponsored lottery, offtrack horse race betting, and Indian reservation gambling. He said lawmakers could craft any casino legislation to set aside a portion of the proceeds could go to help problem gamblers.
"As the people of Connecticut get a fuller picture on the benefits from these projects, they will see we will provide the cities with good-paying jobs," Feldman said. "In every area we have built casinos, we have also put a great deal of time and money back into the area for the treatment of compulsive gambling."
"The question on casino gambling in the state is not really if, but when we'll get ft," said Sen. William DiBella, D-Hartford, co-Chairman of the State Finance Committee. "The questions that exist involve who is going to control the gaming and how it fits into the overall state economy."
Bridgeport officials said that Mayor Joseph P. Ganim supports the governor's position on gambling. But they say the mayor would pursue building a casino in the area if gambling were legalized.
"We're in an ideal position for a casino facility," said Jo Fox, spokeswoman for the mayor. "But we wouldn't bank the city's payroll on the deal."
Feldman said the decision to build the centers would not be contingent on "any sort of local or state" public funds.
"We would take advantage of any funds made available to us, of course." Feldman said. "But we wouldn't pull the plug on the deal without it. "
Legislators were uncertain about the availability of any public funding for the construction of the casinos.
Alfred J. Luciani, chief executive officer of the Indian casino, resigned earlier this week, citing philosophical differences with the tribal leadership.
His resignation follows his submission of a proposal to Gov. Weicker that would block the creation of the Hartford and Bridgeport casinos. In return, the tribe would share a portion of the proceeds from their casinos.
The state currently receives over $2.5 million per year from the tribe for regulatory services but receives no taxes.