Thursday, January 8, 2009

Attorney General Aims Smoking Gun At Tribes

By Ken Davison
Feather News

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is not satisfied with a possible agreement reached by the Mohegans and the governor over smoking at the Mohegan Sun and says he will urge state legislators to ban smoking at both Indian casinos in Connecticut.

Mohegan Sun officials had reportedly agreed to reduce second-hand smoke at the casino with the use of ventilation systems and by increasing the amount of non-smoking gaming space but Blumenthal says that a total ban on smoking is the best way to protect people's health.

Blumenthal today repeated once again that the state has the authority to ban smoking at both Indian casinos in Connecticut. Chuck Bunnell, the Mohegan Tribe's deputy chief of staff for external affairs, who has been spearheading negotiations said, "We hold to our strong belief and legal opinion that the Connecticut General Assembly has no jurisdiction on tribal lands. Sovereignty is something the Mohegan Tribal Council will never waiver on."

Blumenthal's weapon is the text of the gaming compact (contract) negotiated between the tribes and the state.

Last March, Blumenthal issued a formal legal opinion concluding that under the state's compacts with the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes "the legislature has the authority to extend the state's smoking ban to Connecticut's tribal casinos."

The federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act requires these compacts to be negotiated between the state and tribes in order for the tribes to open casinos.

Blumenthal has said that negotiating an agreement regarding smoking with the state would be preferable to court action.

"At the core of each compact is a key health and safety provision -- a critical mandate that health and safety conditions in every gambling facility be no less rigorous than state public health and safety standards. The statutory smoking ban is clearly and quintessentially a public health protection, applying broadly to all public buildings and facilities across the State. The compacts extend this standard to the gaming facilities, unless the legislature creates an exception. The legislature has authority to make an exception for the casinos, but also to eliminate the exception, and apply the smoking ban as a broader public health standard," according to Blumenthal.

"Principles of sovereignty in no way bar this measure, because the tribes have already agreed - as a condition in the compacts - to adopt public health standards at least as rigorous as the state's public health laws."

"The compacts provide for enforcement generally of their provisions through action in federal court, but my strong hope is that discussions with the tribes will lead to agreements extending the smoking ban to gaming facilities without a court dispute. For now, the General Assembly may move forward with confidence that its legality and constitutionality will be upheld if challenged. In the end, on so profoundly significant a public health issue as smoking, we should seek common ground and avoid conflict in the courts."

In 2003 when the state legislature banned smoking in many public places, casinos were exempted. The 2003 ban included state buildings, health care institutions, retail food stores, elevators, college dormitories, restaurants, and most public establishments with alcoholic liquor permits.