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Lawmakers back gaming bill, say it's contingent on Lamont negotiations with tribes

Hartford — While voicing support for state Sen. Cathy Osten’s plan to “modernize” Connecticut’s gaming industry, a bipartisan group of about a dozen lawmakers acknowledged Wednesday that it goes nowhere until the governor’s office negotiates a deal on sports wagering with the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, whose compacts with the state grant them the exclusive right to operate casino gaming.

Osten, the Sprague Democrat, unveiled her proposal, in draft form, at a news conference in the Legislative Office Building.

“This issue has been so difficult, so complex,” said Senate President Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat, who described himself as an “absolute supporter” of Osten’s bill. “It’s critical to bringing sports betting and iLottery to the state. ... It all hinges on the governor successfully negotiating an agreement with the tribes.”

Private talks between the governor’s office and the tribes, reportedly “ongoing” for months, have failed to move things forward. And, it appears, the tribes might not even be on the same page. While the Mohegans say they’re willing to consider sharing sports betting with other entities, the Mashantuckets maintain the tribes have an exclusive right to provide it.

“We believe sports wagering is a casino game but we also believe we’re partners (with the state) and partners have to be open to discussion,” Chuck Bunnell, the Mohegans’ chief of staff, said during the news conference.

In a statement Wednesday evening, Jared Baumgart, legal counsel to the Mashantuckets, who attended the news conference, said, “As in the past, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation maintains that sports betting is a casino game subject to the existing exclusivity provisions in our MOUs (memorandums of understanding) with the state.”

Some in state government dispute that sports wagering is a casino game.

Other vendors have expressed interest in the Connecticut sports-betting market, including Sportech Venues, which operates off-track betting in the state, and the Connecticut Lottery Corp.

Bunnell noted that keno, considered a casino game, is offered by the lottery in an arrangement that grew out of negotiations between the state and the tribes. The tribes split 25% of the revenue generated by the game in exchange for having given up their claim of exclusivity.

Osten’s bill calls for the governor, by Oct. 1, to reach amended agreements with the tribes that would authorize them to offer sports wagering at their resort casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, at an authorized casino they hope to build in East Windsor, and at other tribally owned facilities that would be authorized in Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and one other municipality.

New gaming authorized by the bill would generate an additional $88 million in annual revenue that would be distributed to the state's cities and towns, according to Osten.

“We are leaving a lot of money on the table and putting many jobs at risk if we don’t pass this,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk. “We should be enjoying revenue from sports betting.”

Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, called the measure “a good bill” that would benefit all corners of the state.

Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport, was “100% for the bill,” which he said was a departure from the past, when Bridgeport was often ignored. “Everybody gets a slice of the pie,” he said.

Lawmakers from the East Windsor area also lauded the proposal.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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