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Governor, tribal chairmen, lawmakers and local officials all in on gaming expansion

Norwich — A who’s who of southeastern Connecticut power brokers gathered Thursday at a news conference in front of City Hall, where those who spoke extolled the significance and promise of the gaming agreement reached this month between Gov. Ned Lamont and the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, the first step in the state’s legalization of sports wagering and online gaming.

“It really is historic,” U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said of the deal, a product of “government-to-government” negotiations that, judging by how long they took, were sometimes difficult.

“Other states moved out quicker” following a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a ban on sports-betting legislation, Courtney said. “But our state did it the right way. ... The good news is that when you get it done, it’s going to be enduring.”

The legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee advanced several gaming-expansion bills Wednesday, including one containing the essence of the state-tribes agreement.

State Sen. Cathy Osten, the Sprague Democrat who has long championed the tribes’ efforts to expand their gaming offerings, said the legislature could pass a bill authorizing sports wagering and online gaming within two weeks “and get it down” to Washington, where the U.S. Department of the Interior would need to review related amendments to the tribes’ decades-old gaming compacts with the state.

Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantuckets, owners of Foxwoods Resort Casino, said the federal review could take 60 to 90 days. During that time, he said, the state could be finalizing new sports-betting and online gaming regulations. He reiterated his prediction that betting will be in place by the upcoming NFL season.

Courtney noted that the Interior Department is now headed by Deb Haaland, a Native American who previously served with Courtney in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Lamont, Butler and James Gessner Jr., chairman of the Mohegans, owners of Mohegan Sun, touted the economic benefits of the gaming agreement.

Butler said on-site sports betting operations in the casinos would help them compete with out-of-state sports betting operations and that the online component — sports betting and casino gaming, including slots and table games, from anywhere in the state — also would “drive traffic to southeastern Connecticut,” boosting tourism.

He said the goal is to restore Foxwoods’ workforce to pre-pandemic levels. After reopening following last year’s 11-week, coronavirus-induced shutdown, the casino had about 1,600 employees, a number that has grown to nearly 3,000. Full employment would be about 5,000 workers.

Gessner said Mohegan Sun currently has about 3,000 full-time employees, significantly fewer than before the pandemic struck.

The agreement would authorize the Connecticut Lottery Corp. to operate 15 retail sports-betting venues in the state and provide online sports betting, gaming and keno as well as online lottery ticket sales. The lottery could sublicense some of the retail operations to Sportech Venues, the state’s off-track betting operator.

Lamont said both sides of the agreement “came out ahead” and that the lottery venues, targeted for Bridgeport, Hartford and other cities, “are going to bring our urban centers to life.”

“You don’t need it here in Norwich,” he quipped, turning to Mayor Peter Nystrom. “You’ve got the real McCoy (Foxwoods) down the street.”

Several members of the region’s legislative delegation, which has steadfastly supported gaming expansion, attended the news conference and posed for photos on the City Hall steps. One who wasn’t there, Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, issued a statement.

“I would have loved to participate in the announcement, but the southeastern delegation didn’t receive the invitation to participate until an hour prior to the event’s start time,” Somers said. “While that late invitation was disappointing, I am encouraged that this overdue legislation continues to have broad bipartisan support and has been approved by this key committee."

"Our tribes are one of the largest contributors to our state’s economy and have been faithful employers and partners with our state for more than 25 years," she said. "Once enacted, significant revenue can be realized by our state in a very short timeframe. That revenue will improve our weakened economy and create jobs which are desperately needed after the devastating aftermath of COVID.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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