Gov. Ned Lamont on Friday quickly dismissed a request by eastern Connecticut municipal officials that he use his emergency powers to unilaterally permit the tribal owners of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun to offer online gambling while they are closed due to COVID-19.
The request landed with a thud in Hartford, where the entirety of state government is consumed with preparing Connecticut for an expected surge in COVID-19 cases and coping with the social and economic consequences of shutting down most commercial activity to slow the spread of the disease.
“I must decline your specific request,” Lamont wrote.
His letter was addressed to Mark Nickerson, the chairman of a regional council of governments in eastern Connecticut, where the casino owners, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal nations, are major employers. Nickerson’s request, which was made in a letter dated April 1, was reported Friday afternoon by The Day of New London.
“We need to do everything we can to assure that they are able to survive now and thrive again in the future,” Nickerson wrote. His letter was signed by the chief elected officials of all 22 towns in the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments.
The governor suggested that permitting the tribes to turn every smartphone, laptop and iPad into a virtual casino without a public debate, approval by the legislature, a regulatory structure in place, or a federally approved amendment to the state’s gambling compacts with the tribes would be a bit much for an executive order.
Lamont said no gambling expansion could go forward without revising the gambling compacts, which then would have be to be submitted for approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Connecticut General Assembly.
“That process is simply not feasible or realistic during this crisis and while the legislature remains in recess,” Lamont wrote.
The governor also said legalizing online gambling was no small matter, nor an issue with anything approaching a broad political consensus.
“Authorizing online gaming and enabling consumers to more easily access gambling is a significant policy decision that has not yet been embraced or acted up by our legislature,” Lamont wrote. “Doing so at a time when so many Connecticut residents are in financial distress would be a particularly significant policy decision to make without legislative approval.”
Lamont said the state was deferring the tribe’s regulatory assessments and slots payments and working with the tribes in Washington to obtain COVID-19 relief.
His reply to Nickerson was copied to the tribal chairmen of the Pequots and Mohegans.
Rodney Butler, the chairman of the Mashantucket Pequots, questioned whether the state and tribes would need all the approvals identified by the governor to temporarily conduct online gambling. In approving compact amendments related to a proposed casino the tribes wish to jointly build in East Windsor, the Department of Interior already has endorsed, at least generally, the tribes conducting gambling off their reservations.
“I don’t think it’s that complicated,” Butler said. “I also know it’s not the important thing right now.”
Butler said the tribes are more concerned with their laid-off employees getting unemployment benefits and finding out from the federal government how the COVID-19 relief legislation might help tribal governments and commerce,
“There’s no clarity right now,” Butler said.
Nor is there any clarity about when the casinos might reopen. Whenever that happens, he said, the casinos are likely to have only limited operations, as was the case when gambling resumed in Asian gaming hub of Macau. The gambling halls are open, but travel restrictions have left them empty, according to Reuters.
Butler said he still hopes to eventually have talks with the Lamont administration about some form of online gambling, given the uncertainty about how longer the coronavirus will linger.
Chuck Bunnell, the chief of staff for the Mohegans, could not be reached for comment.