Optimism abounded around the legalization of sports betting at a Connecticut Joint Public Safety and Security Committee hearing.
While Connecticut’s Native American tribes didn’t waiver on claims of exclusivity over sports betting, their tone differed from previous hearings.
This time there were no threats of lawsuits or ceasing tribal gaming payments to the state. Instead, there was talk of compromise.
“In 2021, you have our commitment to stay at the table in the coming session, work together with open minds and find compromise as we have always done,” said Ray Pineault, COO for Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment.
The state’s four gaming entities, the two tribes, Connecticut Lottery Corporation (CLC) and Sportech, have been at odds on gaming expansion. While the divide remains, the tone of the hearing seemed to indicate that it’s possible to reach an agreement.
“We’re at the one-yard line and we’ve just got to punch it in at this point,” said Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. “There’s solutions for all that. People just have to be reasonable and reset expectations.”
Finding a path to compromise for CT gaming entities
Tribes still claim to have exclusivity over sports betting on the basis that it is a casino game. But tribal representatives made clear they are willing to work with Sportech and the CLC on a path to participate. That is, as long as the state recognizes tribal exclusivity.
“I’ve said it in prior testimony that Sportech has some venues that we could possibly consider if there is an expansion of retail sports betting in this state, that we wouldn’t have to invest capital because they’ve already invested,” Butler said. “So there’s ways that we can thread the needle here, but all under the guise of our exclusivity.”
The tribes seem to want to work out a favorable arrangement in which Sportech gets retail sports betting. However, Sportech’s Ted Taylor pointed out that it is the only operation currently authorized to take bets online in Connecticut through pari-mutuel wagering.
Tribes also want to avoid opening sports betting up to a competitive bidding process, or allowing participation from out-of-state companies unless partnered with them. The Mashantucket Pequot recently partnered with DraftKings to run sports betting operations if legalized.
“If we can stay within those lanes, we’re close to a solution here,” Butler said. “And I’m incredibly optimistic that we’re going to get it across the finish line this legislative session with all of your help.”
Lottery makes strong case for inclusion
Online casinos are also a part of S 146, the gaming expansion bill authored by Sen. Cathy Osten at the behest of the tribes.
The tribes want to do online casino, and in an attempt to compromise they allow the CLC to go online with limited draw games and keno.
But the Connecticut Lottery also wants to take part in sports betting, which is not part of the tribal bill.
Rob Simmelkjaer, the CLC board chair, asserted that, with the CT Lottery as a primary sponsor, the state will get $30 million annually in revenue from sports betting as opposed to $10 million without.
Connecticut lawmakers are sure to take notice that the governor of neighboring New York is pushing for the lottery model for sports betting to maximize revenue for the state.
However, it’s difficult to see the tribes agreeing to the CLC having a mobile sports betting platform or offering limited sports betting through nearly 3,000 retail locations.
Negotiations go through the governor’s office
While talk of compromise prevailed at the hearing, details of compromise were lacking.
“We’re currently talking to the governor,” said Chuck Bunnell, chief of staff for the Mohegan tribe. “We’re hopeful. But we’re not there. But this is a government-to-government discussion through two tribes, which frankly the legislature set up. The legislature set up a process that we negotiate with the governor and it comes back here. We’re operating within that and we’re hopeful.”
Butler said it wouldn’t be appropriate to talk about the negotiations between tribal leaders and the governor’s office. However, his tone indicated that the sides are making progress.
“I’m heartened by your optimism today,” said Rep. Al Paolillo. “I think there was optimism throughout the day with presenters … Reading the testimony prior and listening to the testimony today, really the word of the day is compromise, and folks coming together and moving forward together.”
Rep. Maria Horn, the House chair of the committee, told PlayCT that the committee will next hold a hearing specifically on Osten’s bill.
“I want to thank Chairman Butler and his team for helping to close this out in a wave of positivity and optimism,” Horn said. “We’ve had a lot of positive metaphors here. We’re at the one-yard line. We had baseball in there, so we’re also in the bottom of the ninth. I share your optimism that I think – partly because of the narrowing of the issues and the work that has gone into this over the years – that we really are in the position to bring us over the finish line.”