Tribal Gaming In Connecticut

Tribal gaming first arrived in Connecticut during the mid-1980s, starting even before the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 ushered in the era of Native American-operated casinos in the United States.

In 1986, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation won a federal court ruling allowing it to open a high-stakes bingo parlor on its reservation in Mashantucket. Later, in 1992, the tribe was permitted to expand its offerings to include table games. A year later, slots were added at the tribe’s newly named Foxwoods Resort Casino.

The Mashantucket Pequot had earned federal recognition years before. The Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut was likewise federally recognized in 1994. In 1996, they opened Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville.

Today, both tribes and the state’s lawmakers are contemplating the possibility of bringing other types of legal gambling in Connecticut. These include both retail and online sports betting and online casinos.

Read on for an overview of tribal gaming in Connecticut covering both its history and what might come next.

Federally recognized tribes in Connecticut

While Connecticut recognizes five Native American tribes in the state, only two of them are currently recognized by the federal government.

The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes have had their lands designated as federal reservations. Both tribes are heavily involved in the Connecticut gaming industry.

Two other tribes in the state were previously given federal recognition in the early 2000s: the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation and the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation. However, following a challenge to those approvals by the state, the Bureau of Indian Affairs revoked those recognitions in 2005.

Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation

The Mashantucket Pequot tribe’s reservation is located in Mashantucket. The tribe additionally owns land in nearby Ledyard, Preston, and North Stonington. Ledyard is where the tribe now operates the large Foxwoods Resort Casino.

The Mashantucket Pequot’s history in the area dates back several hundred years. The Pequot War, from 1636 to 1638, pitted colonists against tribal members and resulted in great loss of life among the tribe and the taking of land. Though its numbers were reduced, the tribe persevered and remained at Mashantucket.

In 1856, the state sold land claimed by the tribe. During the 1970s, the tribe filed a lawsuit against both the state and the federal government that centered upon that 19th-century sale. The tribe won the lawsuit in 1983, and as a result, received federal recognition as well as an opportunity to repurchase and place in trust additional land.

These developments were formalized by the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Land Claims Settlement Act that became law in October 1983.

Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut

The Mohegans’ reservation is located in Uncasville on the Thames River. That is also the location of the Mohegan Sun casino operated by the tribe.

The Mohegans were originally part of the Pequot Tribe. Led by their head chief, Sachem Uncas, the tribe sided with the colonists during the Pequot War. That decision and alliance with the English ensured the tribe’s safety thereafter. Though it did result in a tribal split. The Mohegans subsequently settled at Shantok on the Thames.

By the 20th century, the tribe started to pursue greater independence. Starting in the late 1970s, it began petitioning for federal recognition. The Mohegans finally received it in 1994.

Beginnings of Connecticut tribal gaming

Three years after receiving federal recognition, the Mashantucket Pequot tribe won a federal court suit in 1986 that triggered the start of tribal gaming in the state.

In the suit, the tribe successfully argued state rules limiting the amount of daily winnings in bingo games should not apply to games offered on the tribe’s land. Soon thereafter, the Mashantucket Pequot Bingo Hall opened in July 1986.

The high-stakes bingo hall proved a hit and grew in size and popularity over the next six years. Meanwhile, the tribe developed more ambitious gaming plans, particularly after the passage of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 (IGRA).

The IGRA authorized federally recognized tribes to build and operate casinos on their reservations as long as doing so was legally permitted by the state in which the tribe was located. In February 1992, the Foxwoods High Stakes Bingo & Casino opened, offering only table games initially along with bingo. Following a renewed agreement with the state, slots were added in 1993. And from that point forward, the property became known simply as Foxwoods Resort Casino.

The Mohegans likewise had already begun to explore opening a casino before receiving federal recognition in 1994. Once that occurred, the tribe collaborated with multiple developers to construct and open the Mohegan Sun casino in 1996. Unlike Foxwoods, the Mohegan Sun was able to offer slots, table games, and bingo from the day it opened.

Welcoming casinos in Connecticut

The opening of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun all of a sudden meant Connecticut had become home to two of the three biggest casinos in the United States. Not only that, both casinos are located just 10 miles apart.

After adding slots in 1993 and adopting the name Foxwoods Resort Casino, the property continued to expand over subsequent decades. In truth, Foxwoods is not just one casino but six distinct casinos combined as one. Among all US casinos, only the tribal-owned WinStar World Casino and Resort in Oklahoma features more gaming space.

When Mohegan Sun opened in 1996, it did so as the third-largest casino in the country, although it was still smaller than Foxwoods. The casinos remain ranked second- and third-largest today, with each featuring around 350,000 square feet of gaming space. That said, the Foxwoods resort is much larger overall, covering a sprawling 9 million square feet.

Foxwoods Resort Casino currently features over 3,400 slots, more than 300 table games, and a 20-table poker room. Mohegan Sun has almost 5,000 slots, over 300 table games, and a 16-table poker room. Foxwoods also operates a large bingo hall, while Mohegan Sun no longer offers bingo.

How Connecticut casinos have contributed to the state

Since the 1990s, Connecticut casinos have been important contributors to the state’s General Fund, which helps finance the state’s general operations.

The majority of the fund is used to cover personnel costs, municipal aid, debt services, and Medicaid. The General Fund also supports social service programs, higher education, legal services, and grants for economic development, job training, the arts, and tourism.

As dictated by their compacts, each casino contributes 25% of slot-machine revenue on a monthly basis to the General Fund. That’s in addition to other taxes and fees required of them.

All told, the two casinos have provided more than $8 billion to the General Fund since the 1990s. Yearly totals peaked during the mid-to-late 2000s when each casino was contributing more than $200 million annually.

Each year, a percentage of the money casinos contribute to the General Fund gets earmarked to support the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund. The latter fund directly supports grants for the state’s cities and towns. Over recent years the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund has paid for an average of around $60 million annually in grants for the state’s municipalities.

In other words, all 169 cities and towns in Connecticut benefit directly from slots play at the two casinos. This money serves a variety of purposes. Some municipalities use it to fund schools, nursing homes, and public safety programs. Others go toward public work projects or other particular needs.

Unlike the Connecticut Lottery, which uses its revenue to specifically fund education, each town and city gets to use the money allocated to it via the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund however it chooses.

The casinos also provide a significant number of jobs to Connecticut residents. Recent estimates suggest Foxwoods employs around 5,000 and Mohegan Sun about 8,000, although those totals can vary.

Soon to come: CT sports betting and online casinos

Both of the state’s tribes and other interested parties are currently focused on the possibility of sports betting and online casinos becoming legal in Connecticut in the near future.

Sports betting in Connecticut

Connecticut has been discussing legalizing sports betting since 2018, but in 2021 it became law. There is momentum to launch the first Connecticut online sportsbooks soon, but much work remains.

In March 2021, negotiations between the two tribes and Gov. Ned Lamont and the state concluded regarding how to amend the tribal-state compacts. The revised compacts included provisions to allow the tribes to offer both sports betting and online casinos.

However, the state’s lawmakers need to agree upon and pass legislation before either vertical can launch. Once that happens, the amendments of the compacts will additionally require federal approval by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Currently, lawmakers are discussing legalizing both retail and online sports betting. Sportsbooks would open at both Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, while the Connecticut Lottery would be allowed to operate up to 15 retail sports betting locations elsewhere in the state. There would also be up to three online sportsbooks, one each for the tribes and a third for the CT Lottery. Sports betting revenue would be taxed at a rate of 13.75%.

Many are hopeful for a launch of sports betting in time for the 2021 NFL season, but many elements will need to fall into place.

Online casinos in Connecticut

Discussions of sports betting over recent years have included the possibility of legalizing other forms of online gambling in Connecticut as well. Both tribes have expressed desires to offer both online casino games and online poker in the state. There, too, much has to be done for online casinos to come to the Nutmeg State.

As noted, provisions to allow the tribes to offer online casinos were included in the revised tribal-state compacts. Both the House and Senate will need to support that change and come up with legislation to legalize online gambling in the state for it to happen. Again, the Bureau of Indian Affairs must approve the amended compacts.

According to the agreement with the tribes, online gambling revenue would be taxed at a rate of 18% for the first five years, and at 20% thereafter.

Given how sports betting and online casinos have been bundled in the negotiations over the compacts, expect that to be the case in any legislation that advances. Barring any later disputes, that would likely put the first CT online casinos on the same timeline as sports betting.