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Region leaders urge approval of online gaming for tribes; Lamont declines

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Gov. Ned Lamont has declined southeastern Connecticut officials' request that he immediately grant the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes permission to provide online gaming.

With their respective casinos — Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun — shuttered amid the coronavirus outbreak, the tribes are facing the prospect of tremendous financial losses, a circumstance the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments urged Lamont to address through an executive order.

"This public health emergency has altered their livelihood in an unprecedented way," SCCOG Chairman Mark Nickerson, East Lyme's first selectman, wrote in a letter to the governor. "We need to do everything we can to assure that they are able to survive now and thrive again in the future. This is why we ... are respectfully requesting that you issue an Executive Order to allow the two casinos to begin utilization of online gaming during this time that they have voluntarily closed their doors."

The letter, dated Wednesday, was endorsed by all 22 of SCCOG's members, the chief elected officials of the region's cities, towns and boroughs.

Lamont replied to Nickerson in a letter Friday.

"While I very much share the concerns you express about the financial distress the pandemic is causing our Tribal partners, I must decline your specific request," the governor wrote. "Authorizing online gaming and enabling consumers to more easily access gambling is a significant policy decision that has not yet been embraced or acted upon by our legislature. Doing so at a time when so many Connecticut residents are in financial distress would be a particularly significant policy decision to make without legislative approval."

Proposed legislation that would have granted the tribes the exclusive right to offer sports betting in the state also would have authorized them to provide online gaming. Lamont has favored a less sweeping measure that addresses sports betting while making no mention of online gaming.

The coronavirus threat has idled the legislature and suspended professional and college sports, temporarily sidelining the sports betting debate.

Online gaming revenue would help the tribes "immediately offset the losses they are facing," Nickerson wrote in his letter. "It will help get people back to work more quickly when the pandemic ends. It will help assure that the many municipalities that depend on revenue from the Pequot Fund are able to continue to receive this much needed funding."

The Pequot Fund, officially the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund, provides grants to the state's municipalities and comes from the 25% tax the tribes pay on their casinos' slot-machine revenues.

In his letter, Lamont said he has taken "significant and immediate steps to help alleviate the financial distress" the tribes' members and businesses are experiencing as a result of the pandemic.

"We already have agreed to defer the Tribes' monthly slot contributions and regulatory assessments," he wrote. "We have also agreed to reduce the amount of the regulatory assessment for the time period of closure for which such services were not provided."

The casinos rank among the top 10 employers in Connecticut, with each providing more than 5,000 jobs. Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun have furloughed almost all of their workers since they closed March 17. Officially, the closings have been extended to mid-April, though the casinos are expected to remain closed well beyond then.

Chuck Bunnell, the Mohegans' chief of staff, said the tribe has been discussing online gaming with the governor in recent days.

"We're careful not to be opportunistic, but we have suggested to the governor that he could allow it temporarily and sunset it until when the pandemic is over and then revisit it," Bunnell said. "We're not going to come out of this quickly. During the pandemic, from a public safety point of view, it makes sense."

State Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat whose district includes the tribes' reservations, said it was essential that Lamont come to the aid of "two of our largest employers" and authorize the tribes to provide online gaming. She said such authorization should be made permanent.

Both casinos have long maintained "free-play" online gaming sites in anticipation of eventually gaining approval of "real-money" online gaming. Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment, the corporate entity that oversees the Mohegans' casino operations, provides online gaming in New Jersey, where it manages the Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City.

"We could do it relatively quickly," Bunnell said of converting Mohegan Sun's free-play site to a real-money site.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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