HARTFORD, CT — The Public Safety and Security Committee passed a number of gaming bills Tuesday including one that would allow sports betting in Connecticut and others that pave the way for more casinos.
Whether it’s sports betting or casinos, most of the debate over gaming is tied to negotiations with Connecticut’s two federally recognized Indian tribes, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Tribal nations. The tribes operate casinos on tribal land in the southeastern part of the state.
The committee passed a bill Tuesday authorizing an East Windsor casino to be built by the tribes, and another that creates a competitive bidding process for a new commercial casino.
The sports betting bill, which would require the Commissioner of Economic and Community Development to seek partnerships with sports leagues, generated the most discussion Tuesday.
“We want to test the waters,” Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport, co-chair of the committee, said.
Bradley said the bill is “tempered and measured,” stating that the final version of the bill won’t allow for betting on college sports involving Connecticut schools.
The bill would legalize sports betting and allow casinos, OTBs, and the Connecticut Lottery to offer it, but the state still has to negotiate with the two tribes. The tribes currently have exclusive gaming rights in Connecticut, and even though former Attorney General George Jepsen said sports betting is not necessarily part of their revenue sharing agreements, lawmakers want them to be part of the discussions.
A deal to allow sports wagering collapsed last year when Republican lawmakers raised concerns about the outgoing governor brokering it.
Connecticut has vigorously explored legalizing sports betting over the last two years, but has failed to take any action.
Gov. Ned Lamont is supposed to be negotiating an amendment to the revenue sharing agreements with the tribes that would allow for sports betting, but it’s unclear how those discussions are going.
“This is a significant and complex issue which needs to be addressed cautiously and thoughtfully,” Maribel La Luz, a spokeswoman for Lamont, said Tuesday. “We remain engaged with all key stakeholders and continue to believe a global resolution on all outstanding gaming issues, including sports betting, is the best path forward.”
Rep. Joe Verrengia, D-West Hartford, said the bill also will require the state to “seek partnerships” with professional sports leagues and governing bodies in the hopes of hosting events.
Under the bill, sports wagering will be regulated by the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection and every operator will need to pay an initial non-refundable fee of $100,000 to start the process.
The bill mandates the legal gambling age as 21 and it has a tax rate of 9.89 percent.
Rhode Island is the only New England state to legalize and launch sports betting to date. Sports betting is offered in Rhode Island at two brick-and-mortar casinos, and the state recently passed legislation to allow online and mobile sports betting. The Rhode Island legislation will require in-person registration for mobile betting.
Every New England state has a sports betting bill filed, including Massachusetts, where 15 bills have been filed.
Sports wagering wasn’t part of Lamont’s two-year budget, but in his address to the legislature he said, “Beyond the two-year budget, we must enact new sources of revenues, such as sports betting and internet wagering.”
When the issue was discussed in Connecticut last year, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said legalized sports betting could bring in $40 million to $80 million a year.
Rep. Patrick Boyd, D-Pomfret, told his fellow committee members that the debate on gaming is far from over after Tuesday’s votes.
“We are in chapter two of a pretty long book,” Boyd said.
He said the legislature needs to be very careful about whatever gaming bill is finally adopted to avoid violating the tribes’ “compact with the 169 towns in the state.”
On the issue of opening up competitive bidding for casinos, Boyd added that “this is not just about a Bridgeport casino; not just about an East Windsor casino. Are we going to be here next next session talking about a Danbury casino?” asked Boyd.
While Boyd and others on the committee warned about the dangers of the state gambling on gambling to finance its way out of its multi-billion deficit, Rep. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, had a different view.
“We want a piece of the action,” Cassano said.