Steve Jensen / ctnewsjunkie photo
Patrons at Foxwoods Resort Casino play blackjack, roulette and baccarat from individual stations separated by Plexiglas partitions as part of the casino’s COVID-19 protocols. (Steve Jensen / ctnewsjunkie photo)

MASHANTUCKET, CT – Leaving $80 million on the table just hits Rodney Butler wrong on so many levels.

But that is exactly what the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation chairman says state government is doing every year by balking at allowing his Foxwoods Resort Casino and the nearby Mohegan Sun to exclusively offer sports betting and online gaming.

And with the body blow that the COVID-19 pandemic has delivered to the state’s economy, Butler says it’s past time to finish the deal and get that revenue flowing.

“What are we waiting for now?” Butler wondered this week as he walked through the casino, which reopened June 1 under strict COVID-19 protocols after a nearly three-month closure.  “We’ve been having this conversation amongst folks in the state for the better part of three years now. You’re seeing more states around us making the move and we’re still debating amongst ourselves. And they’re going to get it done before Connecticut for no other reason than we dropped the ball.”

Rhode Island launched sports betting in 2018, and expanded into betting by mobile devicelast year. The Massachusetts legislature is expected to vote this week on its sports-betting legislation that is part of an economic-stimulus package raised in a special session.

Butler would like to see Connecticut follow the lead of its northern neighbor in a special legislative session expected to be held in September.

“There’s no reason why this initiative can’t be part of an economic-stimulus program for the state,” he said. “Rather than simply spending money, this will generate money that can be reallocated to programs that need it throughout the state. It’s much better than raising taxes.”

Connecticut lawmakers floated several sports-betting bills in 2019, but passed none of them.

Gov. Ned Lamont has said he wants the legislature to take up the sports-betting issue separately from the complicated, highly-contentious matter of expanding casino operations in the state, which has dominated the debate. 

Asked Thursday if he thought the matter might be raised in an upcoming special session, Lamont said: “Anything is possible. We made a strong proposal some months ago that I thought would get sports betting off the dime, internet gaming off the dime, in a way that did not invite any litigation. So I’m looking forward to restarting those discussions.”

In March, Lamont said he favors allowing sports betting at the two casinos, but didn’t want to give the tribes exclusive rights. Lamont said that he preferred allowing the Connecticut Lottery and off-track betting operator, Sportech Venues, an opportunity to offer sports betting.

The tribes insist that they were granted exclusive rights to run all such betting in the state’s 1991 compact that created the casinos.

Steve Jensen / ctnewsjunkie photo
Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation chairman Rodney Butler talks with a casino worker near a slot-machine area where alternating machines are closed as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. (Steve Jensen / ctnewsjunkie photo)

Under the compact signed by former Gov. Lowell Weicker, the tribes contribute 25% of all slot revenues to the state. That reached an annual peak of more than $400 million in the mid-2000s, and more recently has totaled about $250 million a year. 

A major sticking point in the debate raised by some in the legislature and by other private casino operators who want a piece of the Connecticut action is whether sports betting and online gaming are “casino games” as defined in the compact.

Butler is unequivocal that the tribes’ exclusivity on casino games extends to sports and online gaming.

If the state did allow other operators into the mix, he said, the tribes would consider it a breach of the compact and immediately end the 25% contribution of slot revenues.

“Like we’ve always said, and it’s not a threat, we’d just stop paying the state,” Butler said.  “There’s no hard feelings – it just is what it is.”

Revenues from the two casinos were surprisingly strong in June, falling less than five percent compared with the same month last year.

“I guarantee you, everyone (in state government) appreciated the $20 million they got from the tribes in June,” Butler said. “I mean, where else were they getting tax receipts from?”

The way Butler sees it, the tribes have, over the last three decades, proven themselves as highly successful employers, business partners and revenue-generators for the state. Granting them exclusive sports betting and online gaming is a natural extension of that relationship in Butler’s eyes.

“This already exists –  we’re just debating over who can operate it,” he said. “If we all agree it’s something we can do, then it’s only ourselves in the way of getting it done.”