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Casino smoking ban bill extinguished

HARTFORD, Conn. - A bill to ban smoking at Indian casinos on tribal land burned out a day before Connecticut's legislative session ended at midnight May 7.

The bill sought to repeal a current liquor permit exemption that allows smoking at both Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun. The exemption was part of a 2003 state law that, recognizing tribal sovereignty, banned smoking at restaurants and bars everywhere else in Connecticut.

From beginning to end, the bill's process was fraught with the machinations of state politics and power, competing political interests and, toward the end of the session, the issue of a growing deficit.

The bill was promoted by the United Auto Workers, which won a victory at Foxwoods last November when a majority of poker dealers voted for unionization, but was opposed by other unions, notably the 16 unions of New London-Norwich Building and Construction Trades Council. Both the UAW and the Trades Council are affiliated with the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Senate Bill 419 came close to passage. On May 2, the Democrat-controlled Senate voted 24 - 11, with one abstention, to adopt it. But, a day before the end of the session, the Democrat-majority House of Representatives decided not to bring the bill up for a vote.

Both the Mohegan Tribe and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation had vigorously fought the bill on the grounds that it is beyond the state's jurisdiction to impose such a law on sovereign tribal land and that it would violate the tribal-state compacts.

The MPTN and Mohegans contribute 25 percent of gross slot machine profits into the state's coffers - an annual boost of more than $430 million the state has come to depend on.

The smoking ban bill, if passed, would have caused a drop in revenues at the casinos that would have translated into an estimated $60 million to $80 million at a time when the state is projecting a deficit of around $80 million.

The bill's demise was good news to the Mohegan Tribe and the MPTN.

''We applaud the wisdom of the representative who obviously understood the important issues surrounding tribal sovereignty,'' Mohegan Chairman Bruce ''Two Dogs'' Bozsum said.

''We appreciate that they recognized our long history of cooperation and communication and took the appropriate action of allowing the tribes to deal with this important public health issue on a government-to-government basis.''

''We have mixed emotions,'' said MPTN spokesman Bruce MacDonald. ''On the one hand, we are pleased that the House leadership and members did the honorable thing with respect to this proposal, but we are saddened that we have lost three months when we could have been talking on a government-to-government basis.''

Both tribes said at the outset that they were not unconcerned about the health issue. Both casinos use state-of-the-art equipment for smoke removal in the limited areas where smoking is allowed.

In early April, Bozsum wrote to the legislators reiterating the tribe's willingness ''to participate in respectful government-to-government discussions, but we cannot and will not participate in any discussions while there is legislative action pending that would undermine the very relationship that we have worked so hard to develop and sustain.'' He asked them to retrace the smoking ban bill and ''allow these important discussions to move forward.''

Gov. M. Jodi Rell agreed and urged the Legislature to remove the bill, promising she would veto it.

Earlier in the process, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal issued a formal legal opinion claiming that the Legislature has the authority to extend the smoking ban to tribal casinos and that it would be enforceable in court. But he recommended discussions and negotiations with the tribes in order to avoid a lengthy and costly court battle.

Blumenthal's legal opinion was requested by Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., House Speaker James A. Amann and two other legislators.

Political rivalry between Williams and Amann - two Democrats - may have played a role in their opposing positions on the smoking ban bill. Amann has announced his retirement and intention to run for governor in 2010, and Williams is widely assumed to be considering a run for governor in 2010 as well.

Some smoking ban bill opponents have suggested in recent weeks that Williams support for the UAW's position on the smoking ban came about in part to curry favor with the union, in hopes of winning an endorsement, according to a report in the New London Day.

Williams has dismissed such speculation recently, saying he and his party were attempting to balance valid concerns about the tribes' ''limited sovereignty'' with worries about employees' health.

Williams did not return a call seeking comment by press time.