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Proposed casino smoking ban extinguished for the second time

HARTFORD, Conn. – A proposed bill for a total ban on smoking at the state’s two Indian-owned casinos flamed out for the second year in a row.

The proposed bill was stubbed out by the legislature’s Finance Committee, which failed to act on it May 12 before a 1:30 p.m. deadline. According to a legislative rule, bills referred to a committee require action within seven calendar days or three days of legislative sessions.

HB 5608 – “An act concerning the issuance of liquor permits to casinos that permit smoking in such premises” passed the Government Administration and Elections Committee in an 8-3 vote April 20. The bill, which was introduced in February by state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, would withhold liquor licenses from Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino unless the respective owners, the Mohegan Tribe and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, signed agreements with the governor promising to impose a total ban on smoking by 2011.

The same bill came close to passage last year and was similarly snuffed out. Last year, the bill was pushed by the United Auto Workers, which had formed a dealers union at Foxwoods. 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 both years 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.

In April, Mohegan Tribal Council Chairman Bruce “Two dogs” Bozsum threatened to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars of slot revenues and sue the state all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court if the legislature passed the bill. The Mashantucket Pequot Tribe issued a statement in support of the Mohegans.

The Office of Fiscal Analysis issued a “fiscal note” on the proposed bill in early April, warning that its passage could “significantly affect state revenue from Indian gaming payments and other sources, including alcoholic beverage and cigarette taxes generated from sales at casinos, if the ban: (1) reduces the amount of time that players spend gambling or (2) causes players to choose to visit out-of-state casinos that permit on-premises smoking.” The impact would continue “into the future,” the office reported.

Even without the lowered revenues that a smoking ban would have affected, the tribe’s contributions to the state will be significantly lower this year because of the recession than their combined contribution of around $440 million annually over the past few years.

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A week before the Finance Committee’s decision not to act on the bill, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation reached an agreement with Gov. Jodi Rell on a plan to reduce and eventually phase out smoking at Foxwoods. The Mohegan Tribe had signed a similar agreement with the governor in April.

The agreements made it unlikely that the smoking ban bill would pass or be signed by the governor, if it has passed.

Sen. Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, the co-chairwoman of the committee and an opponent of the bill, told the New London Day that the bill is dead and unlikely to return.

“Aside from any promise of a legal challenge it would be very costly. ... in terms of lost revenue because of lost business for the casino,” Daily said. “So our businesses, all of them, are in enough trouble without our taking action today that would be more costly.”

But Jack Edwards, a dealer at Foxwoods and a member of the United Auto Workers union, was not happy.

Edwards told the New London Day that the Foxwoods agreement with the governor had been “misunderstood by the general populace,” noting that while it would limit smoking in the vast majority of Foxwoods, the gaming area where he and others work is still open to smokers.

“Now what you’ve got is you’ve got a smaller area, you’ve got more smoke, and it’s even a worse health environment,” he said. Edwards said the union would continue its lobbying effort to ban smoking on the floor.

“We’re not done,” Edwards said. “If not this year, we’ll be back on day one next year.”