More than two hours into an informational hearing about sports betting and other gaming issues Tuesday at the state Capitol, Rep. Russ Morin joked that he felt like a character in the movie “Groundhog Day,” in which a local weatherman relives a single day over and over.
Mashantucket Pequot chairman Rodney Butler agreed, comparing himself to the film’s lead actor, Bill Murray, and lamenting the lack of progress on sports-betting legalization after several years of discussion.
But despite their shared frustration, Morin and Butler proceeded to disagree about a central facet of the sports-betting debate: whether the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes, which run Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, respectively, have an exclusive right to operate sports betting.
“I don’t understand why, when there could be a great benefit to all players involved, why we can’t come up with something where we’ll all part of it,” Morin said. “I’m getting tired of sitting here and listening over and over and over again to the same questions and the same dialogue, but there’s really no solution."
Butler replied that there was a solution: allow the tribes to operate sports betting exclusively, even if doing so risks legal action from other parties, such as MGM.
“Let’s just move forward, get it done, get it in place, be competitive in the region,” Butler said. “We just sit on our hands and spin and spin and spin and refer to ‘Groundhog Day.’ It’s a sad reality.”
Representatives from both the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes reiterated their belief Tuesday that they alone should be allowed to operate sports betting, while other stakeholders resisted that claim.
The tribes have expressed openness to reaching some sort of compromise but have threatened legal action if the state bypasses them and allows other parties to take bets.
Legislators remain split on whether to placate the tribes or open sports betting more widely. One proposed bill, introduced this week by Sen. Cathy Osten, would give the tribes the exclusive right to operate sports betting, while also authorizing broader online gambling. Rep. Joe Verrengia has said he will introduce a competing bill, which would allow bets at tribal casinos, off-track betting sites and certain CT Lottery locations, as well as online through one of those operators.
Connecticut’s compact with the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes offers exclusive operation of “casino games" in exchange for 25 percent of all slot-machine revenue. The debate over who should operate sports betting therefore hinges largely on the definition of “casino game.”
In 2018, then-attorney general George Jepsen opined that sports betting cannot be covered by the compact because it is not explicitly listed as a casino game. The tribes, meanwhile, interpret the compact to include sports betting.
“My reading of the [memorandum of understanding] suggests that we wouldn’t have to pay the state anymore if you did not honor your piece as to exclusivity," said George Henningsen, chairman of Foxwoods’ gaming commission. “So you if you just legislate that out of existence and say we’re not exclusive anymore, then we wind up in court.”
Representatives from Sportech, CT Lottery and the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling also had the chance Tuesday to weigh in on sports betting and other gaming-related issues.
CT Lottery CEO Greg Smith noted that the lottery would return all sports betting profits to the state, arguing that the industry would yield significant revenue “only if the CT Lottery is substantially involved.”
Ted Taylor, president of Sportech, which operates Connecticut’s off-track betting sites, emphasized the company’s experience in the industry.
“Clearly, we do not agree with the argument that the tribal compacts grant exclusivity to anyone,” Taylor said. “We believe there’s a simple solution: provide the same in-venue and online sports-betting license to existing Connecticut gaming operators, tax appropriately and provide consumer protections that customers deserve and expect.”
Multiple sports betting bills advanced out of the public safety committee last year, but lawmakers ultimately failed to pass any legislation on the issue. Gov. Ned Lamont has said he hopes a narrow focus on sports betting this year, divorced from the complex issue of casino expansion, will lead to legalization.
Sports betting opponents argue the industry will bring in limited revenue, will expose more people to the risk of problem gambling and will function as a regressive tax, with revenue coming mostly from low-income residents.
Alex Putterman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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