Top leaders of the Senate Democratic majority pressured Gov. Ned Lamont on gambling expansion Wednesday by endorsing legislation that would give the state’s two federally recognized tribes exclusive rights to take bets on sports, open a casino in Bridgeport and offer a broad array of virtual casino games on smart phones and computers.
By promoting a measure nearly identical to one deemed unacceptable by the governor last year, the Senate Democrats sided with the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes, owners of Connecticut’s two casinos and partners on a planned third one in East Windsor, on the question of who should control rights to sports wagering and so-called iGaming.
The legislation drafted by Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, whose district is home to both casinos, is designed to have the broadest appeal in the General Assembly by connecting expanded gambling to increased state aid to municipalities.
“This is about making sure that moving forward, everybody has a slice of the pie, that we don’t put people against each other,” said Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport, whose city long has resented the tribes’ exclusive hold on casino rights on their eastern Connecticut reservations.
Several Republican lawmakers from districts near the two casino resorts and the planned smaller casino in East Windsor stood with Osten and other Democrats, giving a veneer of bipartisan support for a sweeping expansion of gambling. The bill also would authorize the Connecticut Lottery to sell tickets and conduct Keno games online.
The Lamont administration offered a muted response, an indication it does not expect the measure to go forward as drafted. “The administration is reviewing the proposal and will discuss this issue during the regular session,” said Max Reiss, the communications director for Lamont.
The bill, An Act Concerning Jobs In And Revenue From The Gaming Industry, was unveiled at a press conference meant to convey solidarity, but which exposed differences between the Mohegans and Pequots. For the first time, tribal officials publicly disagreed on the issue of tribal exclusivity for sports wagering — a sticking point in Lamont’s negotiations with the tribes.
While both tribes assert that their gaming compacts with the state provide exclusive rights to sports wagering, a Mohegan official said the tribe is “open to discussions,” expressing a willingness to compromise and break a deadlock that has left Connecticut on the sidelines since the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to sports betting in 2018.
“I think my chairman and our tribal council has been pretty consistent that they believe that these are casino games that are covered under the compact, but the chairman has also expressed to the governor that we are also open to discussions, because that’s what partners do,” said Chuck Bunnell, the Mohegans’ chief of staff.
Latoya Cluff, the vice chair of the Pequots’ tribal council, initially concurred, then clarified that her tribe’s position is unchanged: If Connecticut legalizes sports betting, the new market belongs to the tribes under longstanding agreements that give the tribes rights to all casino games in return for a share of slots revenue, a deal worth $8 billion since 1993.
Their remarks made public what has been rumored for weeks: the Mohegans may be more inclined than the Pequots to cut a deal that would quickly allow them to offer a sports book at their casino, a feature that has increased business by 4.5% to 5% percent at casinos in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Under a federal Indian gaming law, federally recognized tribes are generally entitled to offer any form of gambling on their reservations that are otherwise legal in their states. But the details must be negotiated in gaming compacts with the states, and Connecticut and the tribes already have set ground rules in memoranda of understanding.
A complicating factor in Connecticut are the terms of those gaming agreements struck in the 1990s, as lawmakers acknowledged Wednesday.
“This issue in particular, as we know, is a difficult one,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven. “It’s complex, because it contains so many different components that have to be negotiated and reconciled in order to move us forward.”
Connecticut gave the tribes authority to offer slot machines, something not otherwise permitted under state law. It also promised the tribes exclusive rights to casino games. In return the tribes agreed to pay the state 25% of gross slots revenue, a deal that has produce $8 billion for the state since 1993.
If the state violates the exclusivity deal, the tribes can end the revenue sharing. The annual payments have fallen from a peak of $430 million in 2007, but they still totaled $255 million last year.
The press conference underlined lawmakers’ frustration about the inability of the tribes and the administration to come to terms on sports betting. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law that limited sports books to Nevada. Fourteen states have since legalized sports betting.
“We are leaving a lot of money on the table if we do not pass legislation like this,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk. “We are also putting many jobs at risk if we do not pass legislation like this. We should right now be enjoying revenue from sports betting, as other states are doing.”
The bill would give Lamont a deadline of October 1 to resolve differences with the tribes, though there is no practical way to force the administration to act.
MGM Resorts International, which operates casinos in Springfield, Mass., and Yonkers, N.Y. that compete with the Connecticut casinos, has lobbied for years to block the state from awarding greater gambling rights to the tribes, arguing it could get a better deal on a new casino with open bidding.
“That is equally true for sports betting, and the most direct path to bring the greatest results for Connecticut taxpayers, economic growth and state revenue,” said Bernard Kavaler, a spokesman for MGM. “MGM will also continue to pursue all legal options, including litigation, to defend our right to compete in Connecticut.”
The legislature voted in 2017 to give a joint tribal venture the authority to build the casino in East Windsor that would compete with MGM Springfield. MGM is suing to block the project, claiming that the federal Department of Interior erred in accepting necessary amendments to the tribes’ gaming compacts with Connecticut. A zoning dispute in East Windsor also is yet to be resolved.