No government pursuing the public interest sells something without first putting it to bid. But for almost three decades Connecticut has given casino exclusivity to a couple of reconstituted Indian tribes out in the woods in the eastern part of the state and has never ascertained what anyone else might pay to operate a casino here.
The tribal casinos have been paying state government for this exclusivity -- a quarter of their slot-machine revenue, which over the years has amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars. But these royalties have been declining steadily as casinos open in neighboring states.
Meanwhile MGM, having recently opened one of those casinos just over the Massachusetts line, in Springfield, is arguing that Connecticut might do better by authorizing it to open a casino in Bridgeport. This would draw gamblers from heavily populated New York and Fairfield County, many of whom now journey to the tribal casinos two hours deeper into the countryside. These gamblers might be glad to lose their money closer to home.
Under federal law the two tribes have the right to run casinos on their reservations, and Connecticut can't change that. But the tribes do not have the right to exclusivity in the casino business in the state. Nor is the 25-percent tribute from their slot-machine revenue fixed permanently; it could be renegotiated. So now that state government is permanently broke and unable to economize, it should ask whether the tribes might be induced to pay more for their casino exclusivity or whether a different entity operating another casino or two might pay more tribute than the tribes pay.
It's telling that the supporters of the tribal casinos don't want to find out. Their argument for preserving the exclusivity of the tribes is only that the tribes have been "good partners" for state government and employ thousands of people in eastern Connecticut. But another casino operator might be just as good a partner, employ just as many people, if elsewhere in the state, and might pay more tribute.
As industrial-strength gambling, casinos are a nasty business. They pander to the worst instincts, exploit the worst weaknesses, and create terrible social problems as the price of the tribute they pay state government. They redistribute wealth from the many to the few and shift commerce from small businesses to big business. They create nothing of value. They are profitable to state government only insofar as they draw gamblers from other states, and as casinos proliferate, states increasingly will prey on their own people.
But Connecticut already has made its big policy decision by opting for casinos. This is bad enough and it should not be allowed to cancel ordinary good practice, competitive bidding for government-issued privilege.
The tribal casinos are warning state government against pursuing competition but the slot-machine tribute they pay actually gives them little leverage. For state government could cut off their traffic any time by surrounding them with casinos in, say, Bridgeport, Hartford, Torrington, Putnam and New London. A casino in Bridgeport alone might devastate them. Faced with that prospect, the tribal casinos might be willing to pay a lot more for their exclusivity, just as the state might profit more by ending their exclusivity. It's time to find out.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.