Tribes stick to exclusivity claim at forum on sports-betting legislation

Hartford — Southeastern Connecticut’s gaming tribes Tuesday touted their decades-long relationship with the state as a win-win for the parties and repeated their claim that only they can be permitted to provide legal sports betting.

As the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes see it, sports betting’s a casino game. Authorize somebody else to provide it and you're risking the loss of about a quarter-billion dollars a year in slot-machine revenue, George Henningsen, a veteran Foxwoods gaming regulator, told members of the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee at an informational forum.

Nevertheless, at least one committee member was looking for some wiggle room.

“There is another argument,” said Rep. Joe Verrengia, the West Hartford Democrat who co-chairs the panel and pointed to definitions of “casino games” that don’t include sports betting. “Let’s see if we can come to a compromise. If the tribes insist on exclusivity, it’s going to be hard to move forward on sports betting. ... It has to be good for the tribes, but also for the other stakeholders.”

Those other stakeholders — the Connecticut Lottery Corp. and Sportech Venues, which operates off-track betting venues around the state — followed tribal representatives to the microphone to make their case for a piece of the sports-betting action.

On the table was a bill fashioned by Sen. Cathy Osten, the Sprague Democrat, which would authorize the tribes to conduct sports wagering online and at Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, subject to new gaming agreements with the state, and permit the lottery to sell draw-game tickets and conduct keno games online, subject to agreements with the tribes.

The bill would authorize sports betting at the East Windsor casino the tribes have proposed and at proposed tribally owned facilities in Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and elsewhere.

An alternative measure the committee is expected to offer would allow the tribes as well as Sportech Venues and the lottery to provide sports betting.

Verrengia, who opposed the 2017 legislation that authorized the tribes to build an East Windsor casino, questioned why the tribes have failed to move forward with the project, which gaming competitor MGM Resorts International has sought to block.

The problem with the earlier legislation, he said, was that it was “riddled with legal pitfalls” but the tribes “always committed to building through the litigation.”

“Litigation is to be expected, but you promised to proceed,” Verrengia said. “People voted (in 2017) on that expectation ... Despite assurances, you haven’t moved forward. ... The state’s losing $25 million a year without East Windsor.”

Aaron Bayer, an attorney for MMCT, the tribal partnership formed to pursue the East Windsor casino, noted that none of the lawsuits launched against it has succeeded, including a local zoning appeal and a pending claim MGM has against the U.S. Department of the Interior’s approval of the tribes’ amended gaming agreements with the state.

“They’ve all been turned back at every turn, but it takes time,” Bayer said.

In the zoning case, a Superior Court judge found the East Windsor Planning and Zoning Commission erred in issuing MMCT a permit without properly notifying residents of the plan to sell liquor at the casino. Bayer said the permitting process will have to be redone.

Pressed for a timetable by Rep. Carol Hall, an Enfield Republican whose district includes East Windsor, Mashantucket Chairman Rodney Butler said the zoning redo would take three to five months to complete, and it would take 18 to 24 months after that to build the casino.

Butler and Chuck Bunnell, the Mohegans’ chief of staff, said that while the tribes were willing to commit to an investment in a Bridgeport casino, the “gaming facilities” the Osten bill proposes in “entertainment zones” would be no more than sports bars that offer sports betting. Butler likened them to the Bobby V’s off-track betting establishments Sportech Venues operates at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks and in Stamford.

Bryan Hayes, Foxwoods vice president of analytics and slot operations, told the committee that a 9.5% tax on sports betting revenues would generate an estimated $38 million in revenue for the state over a five-year period. Though not a big moneymaker, he said, the casinos see sports betting as critical to staying competitive with out-of-state casinos that provide it.

He said online gaming, which the Osten bill also would grant the tribes, would generate $85 million for the state over five years. Taxes on gaming revenues generated by a Bridgeport casino and the “boutique” facilities in other major cities would generate $72 million for the state over five years.

Extended liquor-serving hours at the gaming facilities would boost business, resulting in another $10.4 million for the state, bringing the total boon from the proposed gaming expansion to about $200 million over five years, Hayes said.

Verrengia also inquired about the tribes’ interest in the business of cultivating marijuana, whose recreational use the legislature is considering legalizing. Bunnell said the Mohegans had no interest in pursuing it, while Butler said the Mashantuckets would want any bill legalizing marijuana for adult use to include language that would give the tribe “the ability to get involved.”

“It’s extremely hypothetical,” he said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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