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'Standalone' sports-betting bill would be best bet, committee co-chair says

Hartford — Gaming legislation’s best chance is a “standalone” sports-betting bill that likely would leave casino expansion on the table, the state House chairman of the panel that oversees such things said Wednesday.

On the first day of an abbreviated legislative session, Rep. Joe Verrengia, D-West Harford, said Public Safety and Security Committee members have been working on just such a bill, one that would enable the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes as well as Sportech Venues, the state’s off-track betting provider, and the Connecticut Lottery Corp. to offer sports betting at brick-and-mortar locations and via mobile applications.

The bill would differ from one Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, unveiled last week. Her plan would grant the tribes the exclusive right to provide sports betting in the state and authorize them to invest in a Bridgeport casino. It also would authorize online gaming and iLottery.

Osten is the Senate vice chairwoman of the public safety committee.

“There’s been a drastic change in previous positions, all in the spirit of trying to get something done,” Verrengia said. “In the past, we’ve approached this in a holistic way through comprehensive gaming policy, but given the number of hurdles and how problematic it is to get anything passed beyond sports betting, I think we should stick to sports betting.”

The committee’s bill, a work in progress, would authorize the tribes to provide sports betting at Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun and at the commercial casino they’re jointly pursuing in East Windsor. It also would allow Sportech Venues and the lottery to offer sports betting at their “top-tier” locations, which would require compromise on the part of the tribes, who claim their decades-old gaming agreements with the state grant them the exclusive right to provide sports betting.

Osten’s bill calls for Gov. Ned Lamont to negotiate agreements granting the tribes exclusive sports-betting rights. It also would authorize the tribes to invest in and operate a casino in Bridgeport and operate gaming facilities in “entertainment zones” in Hartford, New Haven and one other municipality.

Similarly, the committee bill would allow sports betting at entertainment-zone facilities in Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury and up to two additional municipalities, Verrengia said. The facilities would be akin to sports books, as opposed to casinos, he said, adding, “We’re still working on what they might look like.”

Verrengia said the committee bill represented a “huge shift” in policy in an attempt to get something done. In recent years, MGM Resorts International and Bridgeport-area lawmakers have pushed for the establishment of an open-bidding process among casino operators, pitting them at times against the tribes and eastern Connecticut legislators.

“This takes away the open competition piece and keeps the competition among in-state stakeholders,” he said. “... When it comes to sports betting, it’s important that there’s competition. For the consumer to have better odds, there has to be competition.”

Nevertheless, he said, in recent months, no commercial vendors interested in providing sports betting have contacted the state.

Verrengia said he also expects to see the resurrection of separate gaming bills calling for the creation of a state gaming commission and for a study of gaming’s impact on state residents. Such proposals have surfaced in previous sessions.

Reportedly, the Bridgeport legislative delegation is considering proposing alternative legislation regarding a casino in their city. Joe Ganim, the city’s mayor, confirmed Wednesday that some interests in the city are interested in pursuing a larger casino than the one Osten’s bill references. Her proposal would authorize the tribes to invest in a casino similar in size to the one the tribes are pursuing in East Windsor, a roughly $300 million "satellite" facility meant to keep Connecticut residents from traveling to MGM Springfield in Massachusetts.

“It’s not the size that matters,” Ganim said. “We want something that works.”

He said the gaming market has changed since MGM first proposed a $675 million casino in Bridgeport in 2017 and that a project of that size may not be feasible.

“MGM’s been very quiet,” he said.

The public safety committee has scheduled an informational hearing on gaming matters for next Tuesday and a public hearing on gaming bills Feb. 25, Verrengia said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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