Tribal ally tries to break stalemate over gambling expansion
Expanded gambling legislation filed Wednesday by a coalition of lawmakers is aimed at breaking a political stalemate by pressuring Gov. Ned Lamont to either conclude or abandon his negotiations with the owners of Connecticut’s two tribal casinos and their rival, MGM Resorts International.
The pro-tribal bill authored by Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, whose eastern Connecticut district heavily relies on tribal casino jobs, underscores a belief by some lawmakers there is no grand bargain to be struck that would simultaneously allow tribal gambling expansion and avoid litigation by MGM.
“We’ve been doing this for two years,” Osten said. “If there was a deal to be made, it would have been made.”
Osten’s bill would grant the tribes exclusive rights to online sports betting in Connecticut, authorize them to jointly operate a casino in Bridgeport and open sports-betting facilities in Hartford and two other unspecified communities. It also would allow the Connecticut Lottery to sell lottery tickets online.
The Lamont administration, whose consent would be necessary given the unique nature of tribal gambling, was unmoved by a proposal it says would result in a protracted legal fight and delay Connecticut’s entry into a sports betting market opened last year by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“While we are appreciative of Senator Osten’s efforts and that of the various delegations, the administration’s position remains the same: a global resolution that mitigates the likelihood of years of litigation and positions the state to capitalize on a comprehensive gaming platform,” said Max Reiss, the governor’s communications director.
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, offered little encouragement about the prospects of the General Assembly taking up the Osten bill in special session without the support of the governor.
But Ritter said Osten is hardly the only lawmaker impatient at Connecticut standing still while New Jersey and other states develop lucrative sports betting industries.
“I think that everybody is getting anxious about getting this over with, particularly sports betting,” Ritter said. “It’s just lost revenue, and it’s silly. It’s very complicated, I get that. It’s no one’s fault.”
Gambling expansion is endlessly complicated in Connecticut, given the state’s de facto partnership with its two federally recognized tribes, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal nations. They are the owners of two massive gambling resorts in eastern Connecticut, the Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun.
Connecticut granted the tribes exclusive rights to casino gambling a quarter century ago in exchange for 25 percent of the gross revenue generated by slots machines. For much of that time, they enjoyed a regional monopoly, reaping huge profits for the tribes and generating $8 billion for the state.
With more recent competition in New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the annual revenue to the state has fallen from a high of $430 million before the 2008 recession to $250 million in the past fiscal year. It is projected to drop further with the recent opening of a major gambling resort in Greater Boston and the expectation of more competition in New York.
MGM has emerged as major competitor to the tribes, developing a new casino resort in Springfield, Mass., and purchasing a “racino” at Yonkers, N.Y. The racino can offer slots and other video gambling, but MGM hopes to develop it into a full casino once a metropolitan New York gambling moratorium expires in 2023.
In 2017, the General Assembly passed legislation granting MMCT, a partnership of the two tribes, authority to open a casino off tribal lands in East Windsor to blunt the loss of market share to MGM Springfield.
MGM sued before passage, saying the granting of a commercial casino license without open bidding would violate the equal protection and commerce clauses of the U.S. Constitution. The suit was dismissed as premature, but MGM is expected to file a revised version should the Connecticut tribes begin construction in East Windsor or the state grants them exclusive rights to sports betting.
It was MGM that raised expectations in Bridgeport about a casino, proposing a waterfront resort — should Connecticut allow open competition.
Lamont has tried to entice the tribes to abandon the East Windsor project and instead build in Bridgeport. But while East Windsor would take customers from Springfield, Bridgeport would only intercept New Yorkers who now go to Foxwoods or Mohegan. The administration has tried to induce the tribes with a deal that would give them rights to sports betting, but the tribes have declined.
Osten’s bill would allow the tribes to open sports books, go ahead with East Windsor and develop a Bridgeport casino. The bill does not, however, require the tribes to build in Bridgeport; it would only allow it.
Osten called her bill a framework for a global solution sought by the governor, even if it would not necessarily forestall litigation by MGM.
Lamont told reporters the bill does nothing break the stalemate.
“We can pass bills until we’re blue in the face. If they end us up back in court and everything’s stopped dead in its tracks, that’s not what I call progress,” he said.
Osten’s bill offers nothing to one Connecticut employer — Sportech, the licensed operator of the state’s off-track betting facilities. The company says it is ready to add sports wagering to its mix.
“A monopoly to deliver sports, or even a duopoly provided by only the tribes, would not be in the best interests of Connecticut or Connecticut consumers. This proposed bill raises the risk of further unnecessary legal challenges and places real jobs at risk across the state,” said Richard McGuire, the company’s president. “We respect Senator Osten, her dedication, and her passion. However, we are focused on delivering a solution that benefits the state, provides a choice for all consumers, and eliminates the illegal gambling market, but this proposal isn’t that.”
Lamont said he expects any sports betting bill would have a place for the OTB parlors.
In a joint statement, the tribes were solicitous of the governor, an acknowledgement that no expansion off tribal lands is possible without revisions to the state’s gambling compacts with the tribes — a task that can only be accomplished by the administration.
“We’ve long believed that the best way forward for the state is to protect and preserve the historic partnership with our two Tribes, one that’s generated more than $8 billion in revenue for Connecticut,” they said. “The draft legislation takes us one step closer to that goal, and we look forward to continuing our discussions with the governor and legislative leadership in the near future.”
A spokesman for MGM had no comment.
Kelan Lyons contributed to this report.
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