Smoking ban bill moves despite court, cost warnings

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HARTFORD, Conn. – Elected officials are forging ahead with a bill to ban smoking at the state’s two Indian-owned casinos despite a government report warning that a ban could significantly reduce state revenues and an informal poll showing citizens overwhelmingly oppose it.

The Government Administration and Elections Committee voted 8-3 April 20 to pass HB 5608 – “An act concerning the issuance of liquor permits to casinos that permit smoking in such premises.”

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, sign agreements with the governor promising to impose a total ban on smoking by 2011.

The bill now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration. The bill text, votes and sponsors are available online.

Last month, 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 United State’s highest court if the legislature passes the bill. The Mashantucket Pequot Tribe issued a statement in support. Both tribes want to reach an agreement with the governor.

Both tribes prohibit smoking in around 90 percent of their facilities and have installed state-of-the-art ventilation systems in the restricted smoking areas of the casinos to reduce second hand smoke. Both have worked directly with the governor on the issue.

In March, the legislature’s Public Health Committee approved the proposal 28-2. The Government Administration and Elections Committee approval was divided between party lines with Democrats supporting the bill and Republicans opposing it. Three elected officials were absent and one Democrat abstained.

The two tribal nations contribute around $440 million a year to the state’s general fund from slot machine revenues, which are expected to be lower this year because of the economic downturn. But a smoking ban could mean even less money for the state, according to the Office of Fiscal Analysis, which issued a “fiscal note” on the bill in early April.

“The smoking ban 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 annualized ongoing fiscal impact identified above would continue into the future subject to inflation.”

In an informal poll on the Hartford Courant Web site, readers voted almost 3-1 against a smoking ban.

The smoking ban issue is the latest manifestation of a country-wide power struggle between states, usually led by states’ attorneys general, and tribes that push back against attempted state intrusions on tribal sovereignty.

In a letter to Gov. Jodi Rell last month, Bozsum warned that passage of the law would trigger a lengthy court battle that Mohegan was prepared to take to the Supreme Court.

“This legislation infringes on the sovereign rights of the Mohegan Tribe and violates our compact,” Bozsum said. He said he is quite aware of the impact such a case would have on all tribal nations.

“What I do here will affect all of Indian country, so it’s very big, very important, and I’m sure other states with tribes are watching very closely. We’re prepared to take this all the way to the top to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Following the Government Administration and Elections Committee vote, Blumenthal issued a statement saying he “will fight to adopt and enforce this law, although my hope is that the tribal nations will voluntarily make it their own tribal law. A legislative ban on casino smoking fully respects and recognizes tribal sovereignty, because both tribes have already agreed – as a condition in their state gaming compacts – to adopt Connecticut’s public health standards.”

But Mohegan Attorney General Helga M. Woods said last month that the bill is “a unilateral attempt to amend the terms of the Tribal-State Gaming Compact. … and would result in a breach of the compact.”

Placing conditions on the renewal of the nation’s liquor license that are unrelated to the sale or distribution of alcoholic beverages violates a particular section of the compact, she said, and singling out tribal casinos for non-renewal “is discriminatory and unconstitutional.”

Despite the two successful committee votes, the bill’s passage into law is not guaranteed.

Chris Cooper, Rell’s spokesman, said the governor continues to support a negotiated agreement with the tribes.

“The governor did have discussions with the Mohegan Tribal (Council) resulting in an agreement that was signed which made significant progress on reducing second hand smoke. In terms of the current bill, the Mashantucket have made it very clear that they would challenge this legislation with a court fight that would be protracted and very costly, and the governor believes that negotiations are preferable to a lengthy and expensive court battle,” Cooper said.

Asked if the governor would consider not signing the bill if it passes the legislature, Cooper said, “She doesn’t comment on pending legislation till she actually sees the bill and gets to review the final language, but she has consistently said she believes negotiations are preferable to a lengthy court fight.”