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Lamont says he wants to 'modernize' gaming in the state, offers no details

Hartford — In a recorded State of the State address, Gov. Ned Lamont expressed support Wednesday for the legalization of sports betting and online gaming, saying he looks forward to working with the state’s two casino-owning tribes “to modernize gaming in our state.”

After the online release of the speech, delivered on the opening day of the 2021 legislative session, Lamont’s spokesman indicated the governor had nothing more to say about his stance on gaming.

“The administration has held multiple discussions with both tribes and those discussions will continue,” Max Reiss, the spokesman, wrote in an email. “The conversations have been constructive and respectful. The administration has nothing further to add ..."

State Sen. Cathy Osten, the Sprague Democrat whose district includes Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, respectively owned by the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, said she doesn’t think the governor has changed his position regarding the tribes’ claim that they have the exclusive right to provide sports betting in the state.

In the past, Lamont has favored opening up sports betting to other providers, including Sportech Venues, the state’s off-track betting operator, and the Connecticut Lottery Corp.

“I am working with our neighboring states and look forward to working with our tribal partners on a path forward to modernize gaming in our state, as well as the legislature on legalization of marijuana,” Lamont said in his address. “Sports betting, internet gaming, and legalized marijuana are happening all around us. Let’s not surrender these opportunities to out-of-state markets or even worse, underground markets.”

In one of those neighboring states, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Wednesday he was proposing legislation authorizing mobile sports wagering. Under the plan, the New York State Gaming Commission would issue a request for proposals to select and license a sports operator or platform to offer mobile sports wagering in New York. The operator or platform “must have a partnership with one of the existing licensed commercial casinos (in the state),” Cuomo said. 

In recent weeks, Connecticut supporters of the legalization of sports wagering have been encouraged that the legislature would pass a gaming-expansion bill this year encompassing sports betting and online gaming. In early December, two developments fueled the optimism: the Mashantuckets announced they had reached a deal with DraftKings, a major sports-betting operator, to provide online gaming at Foxwoods and via an app from anywhere in the state. And, days later, the tribes announced they were deferring their joint plan to develop a satellite casino in the north-central Connecticut town of East Windsor.

Lamont had urged the tribes to abandon the East Windsor project in favor of a Bridgeport casino.

Against that backdrop, Osten has submitted a new version of a gaming-expansion bill that calls for Lamont to negotiate amendments to state-tribal agreements that would allow for the tribes to provide sports betting at their casinos and online. The measure also would authorize the lottery to sell tickets to its draw games online and provide online keno play.

The bill has the support of a bipartisan coalition of eastern Connecticut lawmakers.

Osten, who was sworn in Wednesday along with other senators and representatives in outdoor ceremonies, said she has had no feedback on her proposal from the Lamont administration. She said she sent it to the governor’s office before posting it online.

Osten said she has emphasized to the governor the importance of his recognizing the state’s longstanding relationship with the tribes, whose casinos contribute 25% of their slot-machine revenues to the state’s coffers. Shares of the revenue generated by sports betting and online gaming would sweeten the pot.

Rodney Butler, the Mashantucket chairman, struck an optimistic tone Wednesday when asked about the prospects for the legalization of sports betting.

“The fact that we are actually talking is progress,” he said, referring to ongoing talks between the tribes and Lamont’s office. “I fully believe we’ll get it done this session.”

At least one out-of-state operator, Las Vegas-based MGM Resorts International, apparently is pursuing sports betting in Connecticut. MGM Resorts, a direct competitor of the tribes since opening a resort casino in Springfield, Mass., in 2018, provides sports betting at casinos it owns around the country and online in more than a half-dozen states through BetMGM, its sports betting partner.

"We remain interested in pursuing sports betting in Connecticut and believe that a competitive sports betting market will offer Connecticut residents the best product, drive the highest level of consumer protections, and create the most revenue for the state," an MGM Resorts spokesman wrote in an email.

MGM Resorts has lodged multiple federal lawsuits aimed at blocking the tribes’ East Windsor project, including an active one against the U.S. Department of the Interior over the department’s approval of amendments to tribal-state gaming agreements. The department asked this week that the court dismiss the suit, and the tribes and the state, named intervenors, followed suit.

Cuomo’s statement noted what’s at stake as states consider authorizing sports betting and online gaming.

“At a time when New York faces a historic budget deficit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the current online sports wagering structure incentivizes a large segment of New York residents to travel out of state to make online sports wagers or continue to patronize black markets," he said. "New York has the potential to be the largest sports wagering market in the United States, and by legalizing online sports betting we aim to keep millions of dollars in revenue here at home ...”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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