There was optimism Tuesday during a legislative hearing that Connecticut’s luck was about to turn around, that the state was on the cusp of a deal with the tribes to legalize sports betting after years of failed attempts.
“We’re at the one yard line and we’ve just got to punch it in at this point,” Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, told the lawmakers on the Public Safety and Security Committee during an online informational hearing.
Butler, whose tribe operates Foxwoods, and others who testified all seemed to agree: a deal was close on the sticking points that have scuttled the state’s previous attempts to legalize online gambling and sports betting.
The holdup boils down to a dispute over who has the right to operate these new forms of gambling. The Mashantuckets and the Mohegans, who run Mohegan Sun resort casino, have maintained that their compact with Connecticut guaranteeing them exclusive rights to casino gambling also extends to online and sports betting. Others, like off-track betting operator Sportech and the Connecticut Lottery want in on the action.
Gov. Ned Lamont has signalled he wants to see the issue settled this year and his administration has been at the table with the two tribes trying to hammer out a deal to appease all the parties. Lamont was optimistic earlier in the day when asked about the ongoing negotiations. “I have no doubt we’re going to get this deal done,” the governor said. “Knock on wood.”
But despite the sunny predictions, Tuesday’s hearing saw all four parties generally sticking to their prior positions. Representatives of both tribes continued to claim that online and sports betting constitute “casino gaming” and therefore fall under their exclusive agreement with the state.
Asked how the Mohegan Tribe would react if the state moved to open up the process, Chuck Bunnell, Mohegan chief of staff, said “We’re willing to talk and be reasonable and negotiate. That’s what partners do as they evolve and look at new things.”
Later on, he added “I don’t want to leave you with the impression that we believe that Sportstech or Sports Haven should be in that business. We don’t. That would be unfair.”
Sportech President Ted Taylor maintained there was plenty of room in this new gambling space for all four parties to exist. Competition would be vital to this new market, he said. Meanwhile the company’s chief legal officer, Rich Pingel, called the tribes’ claim to exclusivity a “broad overreach.” Sports betting wasn’t even “on the radar” back when the two tribes forged their agreement with the state in 1991, he said.
“The only folks who believe they have exclusivity are the tribes themselves,” he said.
The Connecticut Lottery Corp. also made a pitch to lawmakers, saying Connecticut stood to make significantly more money if the quasi-public agency was part of the deal.
“We don’t just pay a tax rate or a contribution rate. We contribute every single dollar of our operating profit from gaming activities to the general fund,” Chairman Rob Simmelkjaer said.
Partway through the hours-long hearing, Rep. Kurt Vail, R-Stafford, seemed agitated. Vail said he’d watched too many deals fall apart during his years on the committee.
“We talk about this over and over and we end up with nothing because everyone takes their ball, goes to their corner and refuses to give an inch,” he said. Vail directed this remark to Sportech’s Taylor, who, Vail suggested, should stake out a claim to brick and mortar sports betting and abandon hopes of getting a cut of the online gambling. “Whatever it is, figure it out so that we can get gaming in this state,” he said.
Taylor said he did not want to end up running a venue where patrons watched sports on his televisions while making bets on someone else’s phone apps. Then he softened his position, saying it was time that all parties sit down and hash out the details.
“A little bit of compromise on both parts. I look forward to that happening. I can see some movement towards it and I hope it’s going to happen this year,” Taylor said.
“Here’s the point,” Vail said, “all three groups think their way’s the only way and in the end, the people who suffer are the people of Connecticut who don’t have a place to go to bet on the Super Bowl and have to drive to Rhode Island.”
During the hearing, Diana Goode, executive director of the CT Council on Problem Gambling, addressed the committee saying her group was neither for nor against the gaming expansion. But she did offer a small warning in an adjustment to lawmakers’ expectations of what a “problem gambler” looked like. No longer is the typical problem gambler the “little old lady at the penny slot machine.” Now, it’s the “20 year-old males who are sports betting,” Goode said.
Little time was spent Tuesday considering whether the state should legalize online and sports betting. Lawmakers were mostly looking to get a fix on the odds and the people who specialize in that sort of thing said the odds were good.
While snow fell on Connecticut, Butler joined the Zoom hearing from sunny Puerto Rico where his tribe was announcing a new resort. He declined to get into the specifics of his ongoing negotiations with the Lamont administration. But he suggested a deal was likely if the other parties were “reasonable and reset expectations.”
“If we could stay within those lanes, I think we’re close to a solution here. I’m incredibly optimistic,” he said.