A roulette wheel in the Casino of the Wind at Mohegan Sun Courtesy of Mohegan Sun
Gov. Ned Lamont told reporters he doesn’t believe his administration will reach an agreement with the tribes this legislative session. Frankie Graziano / Connecticut Public Radio
Gov. Ned Lamont told reporters he doesn’t believe his administration will reach an agreement with the tribes this legislative session. Frankie Graziano / Connecticut Public Radio

Gov. Ned Lamont’s efforts to negotiate a grand bargain with the state’s two federally recognized tribes about casino expansion and the legalization of sports betting have stalled, most likely signaling that the 2019 legislative session will end next month without passage of a major gambling bill.

On his way into a tourism conference in Hartford on Wednesday, the governor told CT Mirror, “We’re trying to get something done, but we’re not going to get it done in this session.”

The Lamont administration has been talking for months with the tribal owners of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, which have exclusive rights to casino gambling in Connecticut, and MGM Resorts International, a regional competitor that recently opened a casino in Springfield, Mass., and purchased a video-only “racino” in Yonkers, N.Y.

Sources say the administration was pushing a deal that would have given the tribes the right to sports betting and a casino in Bridgeport if they agreed to scale back or abandon the casino they want to jointly build in East Windsor, not far from Springfield.

Sports betting — whether online or at the casinos, off-track betting parlors or other locales — is intertwined with Connecticut’s complicated gambling relationship with the tribes, as well as the tribes’ fight with MGM for market share. Lamont is open to legalizing sports betting, but only if his administration can resolve all related issues.

“I don’t think we’re going to see it happen in this session,” Lamont later told a small group of reporters after addressing the tourism conference. His audience included Rodney Butler, the chairman of the Mashantucket Pequots, who listened to the governor take questions from the press.

Lamont was asked if that assessment applied to all gambling bills.

“From my point of view, I want a global solution to this thing that’s been stuck in legal limbo for an awful long time,” Lamont said. “And I’d love to make a deal with Rodney. I’d love to make a deal with Mohegan and MGM in a way that I honor my compact with Rodney and the tribes — that includes internet, it includes sports. But I’m not going to do it if we don’t have a global solution.”

Lamont has been trying since January to find a path out of what he called the “legal muck,” a continuing battle between the tribes and MGM over an East Windsor casino the tribes intend to jointly develop to compete with MGM Springfield. MGM has won legislative allies in Bridgeport and New Haven by proposing a Bridgeport casino — if the state allowed it.

The administration’s goal was to redirect the tribes from East Windsor to Bridgeport. A sweetener for the tribes was exclusive rights to sports betting.  The presumption was MGM would settle for a deal that removes a casino from its doorstep in Springfield, or at least shrinks it.

Butler declined to confirm that.

“That would be easy, right?”  Butler said sarcastically. “Nothing complicated about that.”

Rep. Joe Verrengia, D-West Hartford, co-chair of the committee that oversees gambling issues, said he supported the governor’s refusal to moved forward without a grand bargain. “If it takes more time to get a deal done, I think that’s OK,” he said. “I think it’s more important for the governor to stand strong in his negotiations  and get the best deal possible for the state of Connecticut.”

Gov. Ned Lamont and Rodney Butler, the chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot tribal nation, attempt to talk away from reporters inside the Connecticut Convention Center. Frankie Graziano / Connecticut Public Radio

Butler called the talks complicated, but he still expressed hope of an eventual resolution allowing the tribes and the state to go forward with sports betting. The tribes say sports betting is a casino game, meaning the state needs to negotiate with them or face potential litigation over the question of exclusivity.

Lamont and Butler walked away from reporters at the conference to talk privately, then returned to take a few questions. Lamont reiterated that he would love to make a deal with Butler and the Mohegans, but did not see it happening before the session ends.

Butler insisted that MGM was “not part of the equation”declined to speak in detail about the parameters of a possible deal or why none has been struck.

“It’s just complicated,” Butler said. “As the governor said, we’re looking for a global solution, and there are a lot of moving parts.”

All gambling issues in Connecticut are complicated by the state’s de-facto partnership with the two tribes. In return for exclusivity, the tribes pay the state 25 percent of gross slots revenue, which has produced about $8 billion for the state in the past quarter century.

MGM, however, says it will sue to challenge the 2017 passage of a state law authorizing the tribes to jointly build a casino in East Windsor, which would be the first casino not built on tribal lands.

The U.S. Department of Interior recently granted final approval to amendments to the state’s gambling agreements with the tribes, removing the last governmental obstacle to constructi0n of a gambling facility half way between Hartford and Springfield, just off I-91.

Butler said the partnership is now seeking financing to begin construction. The project has been on hold since September 2017, when Interior initially refused to act on the amendments to the Connecticut gambling agreements. That was the same time when MGM further complicated things, proposing a Bridgeport casino — if the state opened up to competition.

“We’re actually in that process of getting financing,” Butler said. “We basically had to dust everything off. We’ve been on hold for a year and a half, I mean re-engaging with construction  teams and design documents and everything. So, we’re in that process now.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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4 Comments

  1. Mark: concentration on Gambling/Tribal issues is understandable, but completely ignores an even bigger issue facing the overall topic. There is a pressing immediate need to restore integrity to The Connecticut Lottery Corporation, lest it become involved with Sports Betting. CLC’s recent history is replete with well-founded accusations of self-serving cronyism, personal greed, insolence, an undoubtedly illegal buyout of its former top executive, and retaliatory actions against a legitimate whistle-blower.
    Pending Bill #7334 seeks the establishment of a 3-member Commission On Gaming which would directly oversee CLC and likely replace those guilty of unethical behavior. THAT should precede any efforts to expand gambling, either through CLC or any other entities.

  2. A casino in Bridgeport was defeated in the legislature once when Steve Wynn tried during the Weicker administration and again when Foxwoods and Governor Rowland tried to gain approval. The tribes aren’t interested now, so why the Governor is trying to negotiate the issue isn’t clear.
    Sports betting is apparently being used as leverage, but it’s also unclear why that significant source of revenue is being denied in years with substantial deficits. Governor Malloy said he was close to a deal, but the legislature decided it wanted negotiations handled by a different Governor. That may prove a mistake in retrospect if there’s no deal at all.
    I expect that the need to minimize new taxes will lead the legislative leaders to tell the Governor quietly to negotiate on sports betting separately. The exclusivity issue might be resolved by limiting it to the casinos and OTB; the relativity recent buyers may have counted on that additional revenue.
    The Governor may have become the most recalcitrant moving part.

  3. All about the tribes. Could the state have casinos in both East Windsor and Bridgepor? Seems like overkill but who knows?

  4. Bill #7334 proposes a 3-member Commission On Gaming to oversee ALL gambling activities. It would presumably offer opinions on Sports Betting. It would also regulate local interests such as The Connecticut Lottery Corporation. That Bill should precede any other gambling matters, since it would thoroughly re-vamp current procedures. Its passage is important because of recent transgressions by CLC administrators which affect the integrity, reputation, employee morale, and effectiveness of The Lottery. First things first! Fix what needs fixing before launching new ventures.

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