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Casino fighters target buses for poor employees

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HARTFORD, Conn. - Upper-class opponents of tribal casinos are taking it out on low-income employees from the inner city, some of whom have only recently made it off the welfare roles.

Some 70 commuters from inner-city Hartford are caught in the middle as a state senator from an affluent rural town is campaigning for an end to the state government subsidy for the bus service that takes them to their jobs at Foxwoods Casino Resort.

State Sen. Edith G. Prague recently filed a bill to eliminate state budget funds "for the purpose of transporting Hartford residents to Foxwoods Casino." She argued that the $400,000 subsidy violated a state law prohibiting state aid for a tribe "engaged in a commercial enterprise" that did not allow workers to unionize.

More than 20 of the workers crowded a Hartford City Council meeting March 8 to plead for help in keeping the bus service. According to the New London Day, Heather Tompkins, a security employee at Foxwoods, told the council, "A union isn't even the issue. We just want to keep our jobs."

The grants come from the state Department of Transportation under two programs, Job Access and Dial-A-Ride. The original sponsor, Rep. Marie Kirkley-Bey, D-Hartford, called it "a win-win program." She told the Day that it was a response to welfare reform laws that pushed recipients into the job market. "We thought that the wages they [the casinos] paid and the benefits they gave would make it a good way for individuals to establish financial independence and eventually leave the welfare rolls," she said.

A "substantial number" of the workers using the program are former welfare clients, said Arthur Henick, spokesman for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, owners of Foxwoods.

He said the state program "subsidizes qualified transit districts to transport employees of low income to their much-appreciated jobs at Foxwoods. They also pay a portion for the bus fare as well from their hard-earned salaries.

"The state has identified this as a transit need. It is up to the state to continue or discontinue the funding as the state sees fit."

Henick said there had not been any discussion about providing an alternative if the state dropped the program.

An employee told the Hartford city council she paid $60 a month for the 80-mile round trip. Without it, said Diane Tucker of Hartford, "We'd be right back on the street." Another speaker, Ursula Scott, was quoted in the Day as saying, "What if you had an addiction? What if you're starting your life over? That's me. And they give you that second chance."

Their plight resonated with the leaders of this notoriously impoverished city. Even though it is the state capital, for instance, it has the second-lowest rate of home ownership in the entire United States. Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez, a former gang leader, listened sympathetically but said the program was outside of his jurisdiction.

Sen. Prague represents the town of Columbia in the state's northeast corner, called the "quiet corner" for its affluent rural ambience. According to recent census figures, her town of under 5,000 has a median household income of $70,208, nearly $16,000 above the statewide figure. Its population is 97.4 percent white. Only 19 blacks and four Indians live there.

The Connecticut Alliance Against Casino Expansion has been active in the area, exploiting fears of possible federal recognition for the Nipmuc Indian Nation based just across the border in Massachusetts. A decision on the Nipmuc petition is due from the BIA in May.

But this bill is not the first Sen. Prague has introduced targeting the Mashantucket Pequots. She previously introduced legislation that would have required the tribe to pay for any measures to ease traffic congestion within 25 miles of Foxwoods casino.