Governor Fumbles On Tribal Negotiations, Says Sports Betting, Gaming Bills Likely Off For Now | Connecticut Public Radio

Governor Fumbles On Tribal Negotiations, Says Sports Betting, Gaming Bills Likely Off For Now

May 8, 2019

Sports betting and other gaming-related bills are not likely to come out of this legislative session, according to Governor Ned Lamont.

But it took some effort for the governor to get his story straight for reporters pressing him on the state of negotiations with the state's two tribal nations.

Lamont showed up at the state’s annual tourism conference at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford Wednesday and initially told reporters that even after months of talks which have yet to yield progress, there may be hope still for the expansion of gaming in Connecticut.

“The negotiations are continuing,” Lamont said.

But that’s apparently contrary to what he had told Connecticut Mirror reporter Mark Pazniokas only minutes earlier – that things weren’t looking good this session. After Lamont addressed the crowd at the conference, reporters pressed for more details -- particularly on whether the state will reach an agreement with the two tribal nations who currently control casino gambling. Lamont was standing with Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe.

Governor Ned Lamont talks strategy with Rodney Butler, the chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, behind a partition inside the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford on May 8, 2019. They walked away from reporters after being pressed to give more details on gaming negotiations between the state and the two tribes that control casino gambling in Connecticut. Later, they went back to talk to reporters.
Credit Frankie Graziano / Connecticut Public Radio

“Can I talk to Rodney?” The governor asked.

The two then walked away from four reporters and hung a quick right to have a chat. They took cover behind a partition. And then, Lamont and Butler walked back. Lamont said the state was still talking with the tribes in good faith but—

“I don’t think we’re going to see it happen in this session,” Lamont said.

He said he wants a global solution on all gaming-related topics – whether it’s internet gambling, sports betting, or casino licenses – before the state moves forward.

“I’d love to make a deal with Rodney,” said Lamont. I’d love to make a deal with Mohegan and MGM in a way that I honor my compact with Rodney and the tribes.”

MGM Resorts International has said it will challenge the state’s decision to award a partnership of both tribes a license to build a casino in East Windsor. The joint venture called MMCT recently secured approval from the federal government that satisfies conditions set forth by the state legislature when it set aside the operating license for MMCT in 2017. It’s being built away from tribal land, so MGM has always contended it should have been included in the process to obtain the license.

“The Attorney General’s office has repeatedly warned, as recently as last year, that pursuing a no-bid approach in East Windsor would expose Connecticut to significant legal risks,”  said a  spokesperson for MGM in a written statement to Connecticut Public Radio. “As MGM has always stated, we will continue to pursue all legal options, including litigation, to defend our right to compete in Connecticut.”

Rodney Butler, the Mashantucket Pequot chairman, heard the governor mention MGM as part of his discussion on negotiations.

“They’re not a part of the equation,” Butler told reporters. “They’re doing well in Springfield.”

Regarding the East Windsor casino, Butler said that the two tribal governments are in the process of securing financing for the project. He was asked if he was 100 percent sure that MMCT would follow through and actually construct the gaming facility. “Yes,” he said, “we are moving forward with East Windsor.”

Christopher Davis, a state representative for East Windsor and Ellington, said that he’s asked about the casino by constituents more than any other topic.

“It’s something that people have been waiting for I think for over two years at this point,” said Davis, “so I think there’s a level of anxiety and anxiousness to try to begin the project as quickly as possible so that the town can begin to benefit from its construction and ultimately with its presence here in town.”

Davis said that work has already begun to build the casino. Some of the homes along Route 5 in East Windsor purchased by MMCT, along with the Showcase Cinema Movie theatre that was located at the future casino site, have been demolished.

Joe Verrengia, the house chair of the state legislature’s Public Safety Committee, said that Governor Lamont now sees expanded gaming in the state as something that will be discussed in a Connecticut General Assembly special session.

Verrengia’s been exploring the sports betting market on behalf of the state for two years now. He said he’s been updated periodically on the negotiations, but he said he was told about a potential special session by the governor’s office only after Lamont’s encounter with reporters Wednesday.

“The only frustration on my end is the fact that a deal hasn’t been consummated at this point. However, I support the governor and his overall strategy when it comes to gaming,” Verrengia said. “I think we just can’t look at this as a sports betting issue. I think we need to come up with an overall, comprehensive gaming policy and that takes time.”

Wednesday’s incident seems to confirm what the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes have been saying all along -- if the state wants to do sports betting, it’s got to go through them.

“I have to imagine that that’s probably one of the major issues as their negotiations are going forward and that’s probably a big reason why this isn’t further along as we all hoped it would be,” Verrengia said.

Verrengia has held firm on his belief that the two tribal governments don’t have exclusive rights to sports betting.