christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie

HARTFORD, CT — The heads of Connecticut’s two federally-recognized tribal casinos were surprised Tuesday when Gov. Ned Lamont put out a statement explaining that he preferred allowing the Connecticut Lottery and off-track betting operator, Sportech Venues, an opportunity to offer sports betting.

Through his spokesman Max Reiss, Lamont pointed out there are two proposals, one that would authorize only the tribes to conduct sports betting and all other forms of online gaming both on and off the tribal reservation. The other proposal would authorize the tribes to conduct sports betting on their reservation but it would also permit Connecticut Lottery, and off-track betting operators to conduct sports betting.

“The governor supports the latter approach because it is simpler, focuses exclusively on sports betting, and is therefore more achievable in this short legislative session,” Reiss said. “It also builds upon the state’s existing partnership with the tribes, is more likely to withstand legal challenges from third-party competitors, and promotes a fair and competitive sports betting market outside the tribes’ reservations.”

The statement was released moments before Mashantucket Pequot Nation Tribal Chairman Rodney Butler testified in front of the Public Safety Committee, which has jurisdiction over gaming in Connecticut.

“I’m extremely disappointed with the position he came out with before the hearing,” Butler said.

He said they had been in negotiations with the governor Monday night. At that meeting, Lamont asked if they would entertain giving up some exclusivity off the reservation. “And we clearly said, ‘No’,” Butler recalled.

He said they have been working on a solution that would mitigate litigation over the issue, but there is “risk in every single thing that we do. We can’t live in fear.”

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The tribes believe they have exclusivity over sports betting in Connecticut because it was a “commercial casino game” in Nevada in 1994 when they were negotiating their compact with the state of Connecticut. If they feel their exclusivity has been violated by allowing other entities to participate in sports betting, then the tribes don’t have to honor their revenue-sharing agreements with the state that currently contribute about $255 million a year to the General Fund.

Butler said they will continue to focus on pushing forward with legislation that would give them exclusive rights to sports betting both on and off the reservation.

If the state gave them sports betting just on the reservations it might increase the foot traffic at the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Casinos, but Butler said the increase would be “incremental” and “we don’t need it to survive.”

So the impasse over sports betting continues.

Some lawmakers expressed frustration with the length of time this issue has been taking.

“We’ve been debating this for far too long,” Rep. Kurt Vail, R-Stafford Springs, said.

Following questioning by Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, about all the monetary and community contributions the tribes have made to the state of Connecticut, Rep. Joe Verengia, D-West Hartford, said the public hearing was not a referendum on the relationship between the state and the two tribes, it’s about gaming policy.

“Our gaming industry has changed over the past 30 years,” he said.

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He said up until the recent past there were never any discussion about the expansion of gaming or the exclusivity of the tribes over gaming in Connecticut.

“I’m not sure we could get something through in a short session,” Verengia told Butler.

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He said in the spirit of trying to get something done they have a bill that only deals with sports betting and like the governor proposed, would allow the Connecticut Lottery and the off-track betting operators to offer sports betting both in a physical location and online.

But it’s not an acceptable compromise for the tribes.

Is sports betting covered by the tribal agreements with the state?

George Henningsen, chairman of the gaming commission for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, said in April 1994 when they were negotiating with former Gov. Lowell Weicker, they did not want any additional casinos in Connecticut so the only measure they considered were the casino games that existed in Nevada.

“In 1994 the only place someone could address sports betting was casinos in Nevada,” Henningsen said.

He said that reinforces their position that sports betting is a casino game.

However, former Attorney General George Jepsen opined in April 2018 that legalizing sports betting would not affect the existing gaming arrangements with the tribes.

“Sports betting is not listed as an authorized game,” Jepsen said. “By contrast, for example, pari-mutuel betting on horse and dog racing and jai alai games are authorized games. The exclusion of sports betting from the specific list of authorized games is compelling evidence that the Compacts do not presently authorize it.”

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

In the 21 jurisdictions that have legalized sports betting, 18 authorize casinos to be the operators, Butler said. He said there are no commercial casinos in the other three jurisdictions. He added that five of the 21 jurisdiction use the Lottery, but that none use off-track betting facilities.

Ted Taylor, president of Sportech Venues, which operates off-track betting facilities in Connecticut, said he was pleased with the governor’s statement.

He said he appreciated the new collaborative approach, but he acknowledged that they still have to overcome the tribal exclusivity argument before they move forward.

“I feel like there’s more of a coming together of a solution that will work and can happen this year,” Taylor said.