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    Thursday, August 11, 2022

    OTB operator says tribes are 'roadblock' in Connecticut sports-betting debate

    With another special legislative session on tap, Connecticut’s off-track betting operator has renewed its push for the legalization of sports betting, labeling the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes as the “roadblock” that’s kept state government from progressing toward a resolution of the matter.

    The tribes, respective owners of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, contend their gaming agreements with the state grant them the exclusive right to offer sports betting in Connecticut, should the state legalize it.

    In an opinion piece first published last week by CT News Junkie, an online news outlet, Ted Taylor, president of Sportech Venues, calls on the state to authorize Sportech, the Connecticut Lottery Corp. and the tribes to provide sports betting. Sportech, a division of a company based in the United Kingdom, operates about a dozen OTB facilities in bars and restaurants in Connecticut as well as an online wagering platform that takes bets on horse and dog racing and jai alai.

    Titled, “The State Must Remove the Artificial Barriers to Sports Betting,” the piece asks, “So why can’t we get this done when we need revenue from Sports Betting more than ever?”

    “Simply, and perhaps surprisingly for the neutral observer, the Tribes are the roadblock,” Taylor writes.

    Taylor disputes the tribes’ claim that sports betting is a casino game and as such is covered by the gaming agreements that grant the tribes the exclusive right to operate casino gaming in exchange for sharing their casinos’ slot-machine revenues with the state. If that exclusivity is breached, the tribes maintain, they no longer would need to share their slots revenue.

    Connecticut’s former attorney general, George Jepsen, questioned the tribes’ claim in a 2018 opinion, as others have since. Taylor cites testimony in March of attorney Daniel Wallach, a gaming law authority, who told the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee that sports wagering is a “contest of skill” rather than a casino game.

    “The clear solution is for the State to break the stalemate and license the State’s existing gaming operators, including the Tribes,” Taylor writes. “Rather than allowing more time to pass, Connecticut can act now to protect its consumers and its financial stability this year, while there is still time to make a meaningful impact on State finances. The State will secure additional revenues and consumers will enjoy competitive choice, innovation, and safety in gaming entertainment.”

    Asked to respond, Rodney Butler, the Mashantucket chairman, wrote in an email that he finds Taylor’s piece “incredibly offensive.”

    “For a company that is contributing $3 million a year to the state to suggest that we should put $255 million at risk while at the same time they recognize the dire financial situation Connecticut is in is reckless and self-serving,” he wrote. “In their home city of New Haven alone that would mean forgoing a $5.5 million direct annual payment from the slot fund solely because an entity that is only contributing $450,000 to the city wants to grow their own business that is actually based overseas. As an elected official myself, I would be and should be thrown out of office if I entertained an idea like that.”

    Butler was referring to the $3 million Sportech contributed to the state in fiscal 2019, a year in which the tribes’ slots payments came to $255 million. The slots payments fund the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund, which benefits Connecticut’s cities and towns.

    Most observers believe it’s unlikely the legislature will take up sports betting or online gaming in an abbreviated special session expected to take place next month. Energy issues and the possible extension of executive orders Gov. Ned Lamont has issued during the coronavirus pandemic are expected to top the agenda.

    Sports betting is “in the mix” of other items that could be dealt with, said state Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat and staunch advocate of the tribes and their pursuit of online gaming and sports betting.

    “I’d like to see us deal with this issue,” she said.

    So would Sportech and the tribes.

    “COVID has shown we need to modernize and take advantage of existing technology in all aspects of business,” Butler wrote. “In the gaming industry, that means online gaming, which is already going on illegally through offshore operators. To the extent there's one ready-made revenue solution at our disposal, it's incumbent on government to act. When you put politics aside, there are no real obstacles to getting this, sports betting, iLottery, and iKeno done under the long-standing partnership with the Tribes. … Working with the Tribes on the modernization of gaming laws is just common sense.”

    A spokesman for Mohegan tribal leadership said it “supports the expansion of what we can offer as Connecticut’s partner,” and noted the tribe already offers sports betting and online gaming in other states where it operates casinos that compete against Connecticut’s.

    “They do also feel that if it is offered, it must be within existing agreements that have been very beneficial to the state of Connecticut,” said Chuck Bunnell, the Mohegans’ chief of staff.

    Before the 2020 legislative session was curtailed by the coronavirus outbreak, Lamont supported a proposal to authorize the tribes to provide sports betting at their casinos and also permit the tribes, Sportech and the lottery to conduct sports betting outside the tribes’ reservations. He opposed a competing proposal authorizing the tribes to conduct sports betting and online gaming both on and off their reservations.

    b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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