Lamont opposes tribes-only sports betting, Bridgeport casino
Tuesday 3rd March 2020
With no sign of a letup in the state's 5-year stalemate over gambling expansion, Gov. Ned Lamont came out Tuesday in favor of a bill that would let the Native American tribes, the operators of off-track betting locations and the Connecticut Lottery to all run sports betting.
His statement through spokesman Max Reiss directly rebuked a competing bill that would give the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes exclusive rights to sports betting at their reservation-based resorts and in other locations around the state, as well as online.
That pro-tribe bill, sponsored by sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, would also give the tribes a license to open a casino in Bridgeport. It says the tribes could invest as little as $100 million -- a very small location that would not create a significant, regional attraction.
The statement from Lamont reflects a breakdown of negotiations between his office and the tribes. From the start of his administration 14 months ago, the governor has tried to persuade the tribes to share sports betting and drop the tribes' joint plan for a casino of about $300 million in East Windsor -- in exchange for a license for a new casino in Bridgeport.
Lamont favors the bill to spread sports betting at least to all three entities, sponsored by Rep. Joe Verrengia, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the General Assembly's public safety committee, which oversees gambling.
"It is simpler, focuses exclusively on sports betting, and is therefore more achievable in this short legislative session. It also builds upon the state's existing partnership with the tribes, is more likely to withstand legal challenges from third party competitors, and promotes a fair and competitive sports betting market outside the tribes' reservations," Reiss said in a written statement.
The issue of lawsuits was clearer when it came to casino expansion than sports betting, as MGM Resorts International already filed multiple lawsuits over the state's no-bid license for the tribes in East Windsor. When it comes to sports betting, it's less clear that the state would face viable legal challenges if it were to give exclusive rights to the tribes.
Precisely as Reiss issued the statement, top officials from the tribes appeared before the public safety committee to make the case for Osten's bill at a hearing on both bills. Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council, listed several states that have given exclusive sports betting rights to tribes located inside their borders.
No state, Butler said, has required tribes to share sports betting with local operators of off-track betting.
Butler also cited a ruling by the National Indian Gaming Commission, a federal board, saying sports betting is a "Class 3" casino games. That means, in his view, that it's part of the 1990s contracts with the state under which the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun have perpetual, exclusive right to all casino games in Connecticut in exchange for 25 percent of slot machine revenue.
"Our position on that accord will not change," Butler said.
Osten, a member of the public safety committee, spent her time extolling the tribes as the state's greatest employers, with more than $8 billion in payments to the state over the decades and widespread support for charities.
"I want to thank you for employing my neighbors and my friends and the people of the state of Connecticut," said Osten, whose district includesn the tribal casinos. "Both of you have been real partners for the state of Connecticut. How much money as two of the largest emploters in Connecticut have you taken from state coffers?"
"Zero," Butler responded.
MGM, for its part, did not send a person to testify at the hearing and has maintained a lower profile on the issue this year, which some have speculated indicates waning interest in the state by the Las Vegas-based company. The company filed a comment from Ayesha Molino, a top MGM lobbyist in Washington D.C., reminding lawmakers that MGM will defend its legal rights to bid on any gaming expansion.
"We are not looking for Connecticut to select MGM, right here and right now -- we are merely looking for an opportunity to compete, on an even playing field," Molino said.
Lamont, Reiss said, "wants to sign a sports betting bill into law over the next few months. Any such proposal, however, must be designed to avoid and withstand endless legal challenges, include multiple, competing mobile platforms off the tribes' reservations, and build upon the existing footprints of all of the state's existing gaming operators."
All sides including the Connecticut Lottery and Sportech, operator of 14 off-track betting locations in the state, say they want to be flexible, as none gives in.
"We understand there is a substantial chance for litigation whatever path the state might take but that does not justify inaction," Butler said.
He decried what he called unfair treatment -- in the context of the tragic history of Native Americans in the United States.
"My ancestors have experienced that approach and we know the outcome of that," he said.