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Sen. Cathy Osten and Sen. Saud Anwar (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, believes she’s struck a deal she can get through the House and the Senate with broad support to expand gaming and sports betting in Connecticut.

The legislation she plans to introduce Feb. 5 would allow Gov. Ned Lamont to negotiate with the tribes to amend their existing agreements with the state. The bill would allow the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Tribal Nation, which already operate casinos in the southeastern part of the state, to operate both retail and online sports betting.

In addition, the bill would allow for the creation of a new casino in Bridgeport to be jointly owned by the two tribes and would create tribal “entertainment zones” in Hartford, New Haven, and one other town that has yet to be determined. The bill would also extend the sale of alcohol at the casinos until 4 a.m.

It would also establish a new way to share revenue with cities and towns. The legislation would allocate some of the new revenue, including 10% of gross gaming revenue, to state tourism efforts and 15% would be deposited in the general fund. It’s estimated the revenue from the sharing agreements with the tribes will increase by $88 million. Currently, cities and towns see about $51 million annually from the Pequot-Mohegan fund, which includes 25% of all video slot revenue.

The legislation would not leave the door open for any other casino operator or off-track betting facility to bid for the chance to offer gaming.

Lawmakers were divided over the past few years about whether they should allow the tribes to maintain their exclusivity over gaming or allow other commercial gaming operators to come in and compete.

MGM Resorts International was the most vocal opponent of tribal exclusivity and at one point pitched building a casino in Bridgeport.

On Wednesday they said they were still interested in opportunities in Connecticut.

“MGM continues to be interested in opportunities in Connecticut, and we strongly believe that the best path for Connecticut, whether in establishing sports betting or moving ahead with a third casino in the state, is an open, competitive process,” the company said in a statement. “As we have said consistently, if Connecticut is to maximize the economic impact of a commercial casino license, a transparent, competitive process is in the state’s best interest.  That is equally true for sports betting, and the most direct path to bring the greatest results for Connecticut taxpayers, economic growth and state revenue.”

MGM also made it clear they will pursue all legal options if Connecticut doesn’t allow them to compete.

Osten said the legislation she proposed doesn’t contemplate any other entity aside from the tribes.

“Connecticut needs to embrace and promote two of the largest employers in our state — the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes—with the same fervor and conviction that we have embraced the aerospace industry, advanced manufacturing, and biotech,” Osten said.

While the legislation will help pave the way, Gov. Ned Lamont will need to seal the deal with the two tribes.

christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Chuck Bunnell, chief of staff for the for the Mohegan Tribal Council, and Latoya Cluff, vice chairwoman of the Mashantucket Tribal Council (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

So far, like his predecessor, he’s been unsuccessful at striking a deal.

The negotiations won’t be easy.

One tribe left the door open, while the other tribe made it clear they were not going to give up their exclusivity over gaming, including online gambling and sports betting, if the legislature moves forward with expansion.

“My chairman and our tribal council has been pretty consistent that they believe these are casino games that are covered under the compact, but the chairman has also expressed to the governor that we are also open to discussions because that’s what partners do,” Chuck Bunnell, chief of staff for the for the Mohegan Tribal Council, said Wednesday.

The Mashantucket Pequots held firm in their opinion that the Memorandum of Understanding with the state has an exclusivity provision over casino games and “sports betting is a casino game,” Jared Baumgart, an attorney for the Mashantucket Pequots, said.

Former Attorney General George Jepsen opined that sports gaming was not covered by the tribal agreements.

“It is our opinion that if sports betting were to become lawful in Connecticut, the Tribes would not have an exclusive right under the existing Compacts and MOUs to offer it,” Jepsen wrote in 2018.

Attorney General William Tong has not weighed in on the issue. 

“Our tribes are in this business to provide for their people,” Bunnell said.

Osten said what’s different this year is “the governor’s willingness to come to the table and make sure we can get something done this session.”

Bunnell said time has been an issue in the past. He said they would negotiate something and there wasn’t time to get the legislature to pass it.