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Lamont, tribes at impasse in negotiations over rights to sports betting

Hartford — Prospects for the legalization of sports betting in Connecticut appeared dim Tuesday after Gov. Ned Lamont came out in favor of a bill the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes say would cause them to stop sharing their casinos' slots revenue with the state.

In a statement issued after the start of a legislative hearing on gaming bills, Lamont's spokesman said Lamont was backing a proposal that would authorize the tribes to conduct sports betting on their reservations — home to Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun — and also permit the tribes, the Connecticut Lottery Corp. and the state's off-track betting operator to conduct sports betting outside the tribes' reservations.

The tribes support an alternative proposal, Senate Bill 21, that would grant them the exclusive right to provide sports betting and online gaming, invest in a Bridgeport casino and sports-betting “centers” in several cities, and authorize an online lottery.

Lamont prefers the bill authorizing multiple sports-betting operators "because it is simpler, focuses exclusively on sports betting, and is therefore more achievable in this short legislative session," Lamont's spokesman, Max Reiss, said in the statement. "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 governor made his position known during a meeting Monday, tribal officials said.

"He (Lamont) wants to sign a sports betting bill into law over the next few months," Reiss continued in the statement. "Any such proposal, however, must be designed to avoid and withstand endless legal challenges, include multiple, competing mobile platforms off the tribes' reservations, and build upon the existing footprints of all of the state's existing gaming operators."

Passage of the so-called standalone sports-betting bill appears highly unlikely, since the tribes would regard it as a breach of their “exclusivity” as outlined in their decades-old agreements with the state, causing them to withhold slots payments that have totaled more than $250 million annually in recent years. Over the life of the casinos, which opened in the 1990s, the payments approach $9 billion.

Rodney Butler, the Mashantucket chairman, said he was extremely disappointed with the governor’s position and was at a loss to understand it. He said any suggestion that the tribes hadn’t been willing to compromise during negotiations was “a false narrative.”

Nevertheless, Butler said, the Mashantuckets would continue to participate in any further negotiations and in the meantime would continue to "successfully" operate Foxwoods while abiding by the terms of current agreements.

In a statement issued later Tuesday, James Gessner, the Mohegan chairman, was critical of Lamont’s stance. “Unfortunately, Governor Lamont appears to be saying that the state can either adopt his singular proposal on gaming, or do nothing at all,” Gessner said. “That simply isn't true. The Governor's proposal would put both the tribal nations and the State of Connecticut in an untenable position, resulting in certain litigation and ongoing missed opportunity for Connecticut taxpayers who would continue to watch neighboring states grow jobs and revenue in this area as Connecticut stands still.”

“Thankfully, Connecticut has other options,” Gessner said. “Proposals by Senator (Cathy) Osten and others represent a clear, good faith baseline to get something done this session. The tribal nations have been committed to those conversations, and have shown a demonstrated flexibility at the negotiating table. We will continue to work with willing partners who understand and appreciate not only our existing rights as sovereign nations, but our enormous contributions to the state, its economy, and its employment base.”

Osten, the Sprague Democrat who crafted Senate Bill 21, said she was still determined to pass a measure that “modernizes” the state’s gaming industry. Outside the room where the Public Safety and Security Committee heard testimony, she expressed frustration.

“For whatever reason, this governor has been against the tribes since he took office. I don’t know why,” she said. “We did everything he asked for in a gaming bill — sports betting, a Bridgeport casino, a downsizing of the East Windsor casino, online lottery, entertainment zones ...”

During the hearing, Osten, a member of the public safety committee, sought to highlight the tribes’ contributions to the state, which she said go far beyond the slots payments. Each tribe is among the top 10 employers in the state, each has invested around $3 billion in its casino and each supports numerous local nonprofit organizations, tribal officials said.

“I don’t think people are aware of how much you do for the people of Connecticut,” Osten said, addressing Butler and Ray Pineault, a Mohegan official. “And what have you gotten from the state? Nothing? You must really love the state of Connecticut.”

In response, Rep. Joe Verrengia, the West Hartford Democrat who co-chairs the public safety committee, said the hearing was not meant to be “a referendum on our relationship with the two tribes” but an attempt to respond to changes in the gaming landscape that have occurred over the past 30 years. He said he was trying to assess the viability of another casino in the state, given the way new casinos in the Northeast have underperformed since opening.

Verrengia noted that the East Windsor casino the tribes were authorized to develop in 2017 has been downsized, as has the revenue it’s projected to generate. Jared Baumgart, an attorney for the Mashantuckets, told the committee the tribes were working with East Windsor officials to rework zoning regulations that tripped up the project. 

Osten’s bill has the support of Bridgeport officials, including Mayor Joe Ganim, who testified Tuesday that Osten had discussed casino development with him on a recent visit to the city. He said a casino project the tribes have agreed to boost through an investment of at least $100 million would be “a catalyst” for major development on the Bridgeport waterfront.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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