Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz and House Majority Leader Matter Ritter, and Reps. Joe Verrengia and Daniel Rovero (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT—House Democratic leaders said they want to make sure Connecticut is poised jump into the sports betting world if the U.S. Supreme Court rules that states can legalize it.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, and Public Safety Committee Co-Chair Joe Verrengia, D-West Hartford, held a news conference Wednesday concerning an expected verdict in the sports betting case Christie v. NCAA

Depending on how the court sides, it could open up sports betting to the states.

“If the court opens up this extremely popular market to the states, Connecticut should be ready to go from both a regulatory and operational standpoint,” Aresimowicz said. “The odds may be changing, and we need to look ahead and be ready for what the future of gaming will look like.”

To do that the legislature would need to pass legislation.

Aresimowicz said legalized sports betting could bring in “$40 to $80 million a year” to cash-starved Connecticut. He noted that the state of Rhode Island has built its next fiscal year budget adding in $23 million in anticipated sports betting funding it would receive if the court rules in favor of the states.

“We are always so far behind,” Ritter said when asked about the wisdom of talking about action before the Supreme Court has acted. “We want to be ahead of it.”

“Connecticut should be ready to act as soon as the Supreme Court decision is handed down,” Ritter said. “Based on the oral arguments before the Court late last year, it seems entirely possible that the federal ban on sports betting will be overturned and we want to be competitive with other states.”

Christie v. NCAA is on its face a case about sports gambling. Congress passed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) in 1992, prohibiting most states from enacting laws that legalize betting on sports. The law grandfathered in Nevada, Montana, Delaware and Oregon, all of which had already set up sports lotteries before PASPA passed.

The rest of the country had a one-year grace period in which they could pass legislation that would allow gambling on sports.

In November 2011, New Jersey voters passed an amendment to the state constitution allowing state lawmakers to enact legislation making gambling on sports legal. The Sports Wagering Act was signed into law in January 2012, allowing casinos and racetracks to take bets on college and professional sporting events.

The four major sports leagues in the country – the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL – joined the NCAA in challenging New Jersey’s new law in federal court.

So New Jersey’s legislature went back to work, looking for a way to pass a law that would put into action the voters’ referendum while still obeying the federal appeals court’s decision.

In 2014, the legislature decided that instead of passing a law allowing for the licensing of casinos and racetracks, it would repeal the laws requiring casinos and racetracks to be licensed to accept sports bets.

That set off the current round of litigation. The leagues again sued and the federal district court and the Third Circuit enjoined New Jersey’s law, saying it, too, violated PASPA. New Jersey appealed to the Supreme Court, where it argues that by prohibiting states from repealing laws already on their books, PASPA commandeers state governments.

Meanwhile, in Connecticut any agreement on sports betting would have to involve the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Tribal Nation, who have exclusive agreements with Connecticut over gaming.

Currently the state and the tribes have a compact in which the state receives 25 percent of slot revenue in exchange for exclusive casino rights.

Aresimowicz called the tribes “good partners,” but added that much has changed with gambling since the compact was originally signed. He said he anticipated the tribes would be part of discussions concerning sports betting when and if the legislation advances.

“The Speaker recognizes our 25 year exclusive agreement with Connecticut, which has resulted in thousands of jobs and over $7 billion in revenue between ours and Mohegans’ flagship properties combined,” Lori Potter, director of communications for the Mashantucket Pequot, said.

“We are grateful for that, and we look forward to continuing conversations with him and other members of the General Assembly with regard to sports betting and any other gaming opportunities that may arise this session,” Potter added.

Chief of Staff for the Mohegan Tribe Chuck Bunnell added: “We feel that we are uniquely positioned to deliver an outstanding product.  Fortunately, the state and its two tribal nations have a partnership that makes them ready to be national leaders in this potential new market.”

Asked if there would be enough time to pass legislation since the timing of a Supreme Court ruling is not known, Aresimowicz said the issue is important enough “that we could call ourselves into a special session over the summer.”

Verrengia’s committee is holding a sports gaming forum on Thursday, which he said will help determine the best legislative approach to pursue. Scheduled participants for the forum include representatives of the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball, as well as sports gaming industry officials.

“I think it’s important that Connecticut is poised to compete in the marketplace should sports betting become legalized,” Verrengia said. “The informational hearing – a national perspective from leaders in the industry – is intended to assist legislators in their decision-making process.”