Connecticut lawmakers were urged Tuesday to finally legalize sports betting and internet gambling after years of debate, but it’s clear disagreement still remains as to whether the state’s federally recognized tribes have exclusive rights to that kind of wagering — an issue that has stymied the state’s efforts in the past.
“We can’t find anybody else from a legal perspective that doesn’t work for the tribes … who has said they have exclusivity,” Ted Taylor, president of Sportech Venues Inc., told members of the General Assembly’s Public Safety Committee in his pitch to allow all existing Connecticut gambling operators to get into the sports betting game.
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Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Chairman Rodney Butler, however, insisted both sports betting and internet gambling fall under the decades-old memoranda of understanding between the state and the Mashantucket Pequot and the Mohegan tribes, who currently pay the state 25% of their slot machine revenues at Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun in exchange for having the exclusive right to offer casino games.
With VA and MI launching mobile sports betting last week, 20 states and DC now have operational legal sports betting markets, with 15 jurisdictions offering the convenience of mobile wagering.
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“Suffice it to say, our tribes are resolved to defend our position and we would consider it a break in trust if the state allowed other entities to engage in sports betting without our agreement,” Butler told the lawmakers. Tribal leaders in the past have said they’d stop the payments to the state if they thought their deal was violated.
“Both of our governments, as well as the taxpayers of Connecticut, are well served by the existing agreements, and sports wagering can and should be implemented without putting those agreements in jeopardy,” said Ray Pineault, chief operating officer for Mohegan Gaming and Entertainment, which already operates online gambling in other states.
Despite the familiar arguments, both legislators and Butler insisted the state may be on the brink of finally hammering out a compromise, one that would benefit not only the two tribes, but possibly Sportech and the Connecticut Lottery Corporation, which also made a pitch to offer sports betting.
“I feel like it’s so close,” said Rep. Kurt Vail, R-Stafford. “The hurdle seems so small now.”
Butler said the tribes have resumed talks with Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont and his administration about gambling expansion in the state. Also, Butler said it appears lawmakers are more supportive of online gambling than in previous years after seeing so many other businesses move online during the pandemic.
“I really do believe we’re going to get this through this year,” Butler told reporters after appearing virtually before the Public Safety Committee from Puerto Rico, where he announced a partnership between the Mashantucket Tribal Nation and LionGrove, a hospitality investment firm, to reopen the El San Juan Casino as the Foxwoods El San Juan Casino.
Butler said the tribes are willing to be flexible and open to compromise on a sports betting and internet gambling deal so long as their rights to exclusivity are protected.
“Having the governor really dedicating effort to try to get this across the finish line, the legislature understanding it,” he said, “it seems to be all coming together in a way that can have a positive outcome for the state and for the tribes.”