If you think that Tuesday’s 10-hour, 45-minute marathon public hearing on gaming issues in Hartford must have left plenty of time for a robust discussion about the future of legal sports betting — well, you don’t know Connecticut politics.
As is happening in a number of states, the pursuit of sports betting legalization in the state is getting subsumed by long-running other sagas that take precedence.
In this case, there are two such issues: a bill that would allow for a formal request for proposals to potentially expand casinos beyond the two Native American properties, and another that would erase a requirement that an already approved casino in East Windsor must first gain federal blessing.
More on those in a moment, but first let’s look at what the endless parade of speakers did say about sports betting.
Scott Butera, formerly the Foxwoods CEO and now president of MGM Interactive, stressed the idea of an “open, competitive environment” regarding sports betting. He said the Connecticut market would likely best handle “six or seven players” offering online wagering. Asked what state’s example appeals to lawmakers in Connecticut, Butera pointed out New Jersey online sports betting.
“You can see already how fast New Jersey is growing,” Butera said. “You have a relatively low tax, a reasonable licensing fee, and an ability to use mobile statewide. You don’t have to go to Atlantic City to sign up.”
Chris Cipolla, the senior manager for government affairs for DraftKings, also pointed the lawmakers to New Jersey’s model.
Lottery, tribes, and horses
Connecticut Lottery Corp. CEO Greg Smith touted his agency as the “only potential partner that is fully customizable. We would turn over the profits from sports betting to the state.”
Smith also noted the agreements the lottery has with countless small businesses. “You could have hundreds of sports betting retailers — one in every town,” Smith said. “We could deliver whatever product we are asked to deliver.”
Somewhat surprisingly, however, Smith, who was brought in from Illinois last summer in the wake of a million-dollar blunder in a New Year’s Day 2018 drawing in Connecticut, did not push for exclusivity in sports betting. Smith acknowledged that “multiple operators are a good idea, from a competitive standpoint.”
There was brief debate about whether the Native American tribes automatically get a monopoly on offering sports betting.
“The compact has nothing to do with sports betting,” said Republican Rep. Craig Fishbein, a sentiment echoed by Butera. Several lawmakers disagreed, with state Sen. Cathy Osten calling the tribes’ monopoly on gambling “sacrosanct.”
In the final hour, a surprise guest entered: former Mets and Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, a restaurateur who touted his business partner Sportech as an ideal provider of legal sports betting in the state. Sportech already runs the state’s off-track horse racing wagering system.
“We already have sports betting here. The only question is whether they are going to be able to do it legally,” Valentine said, adding that he also supports legal online betting and wagering on college as well as pro sports.
Two hornets’ nests complicate matters
Unfortunately for those hoping to see real progress on the sports betting front on Tuesday, the two other bills regarding land-based casinos drew by far the most attention.
One would undo a previous requirement that the Department of the Interior approve the arrangement that would have the Mashantucket Pequot and the Mohegan tribes jointly build a casino on land in East Windsor that is not part of either tribe’s lands. The federal agency last fall declined to give the casino a go-ahead, citing “insufficient information.”
MGM intervened in that battle last year, in large part because the East Windsor casino site is only a dozen miles away from its new casino in Springfield, Mass. The third native American casino in Connecticut would be a defensive move designed to keep state residents from crossing the border and gambling their money at MGM’s Springfield property.
The other bill would create a Connecticut Gaming Commission and authorize a competitive bidding process for a commercial resort casino. As it happens, MGM has pushed hard to bring a casino to Bridgeport in the western part of the state.
But Rodney Butler, the chairman of Mashantucket Pequot tribe, reiterated his stance that even the mere issuance of a Request for Proposals would void the decades-old compact between the state and the tribes, thus leading to the tribes immediately cutting off payments to the state of roughly $250 million per year.
“I’ve been married for 17 years,” said Butler. “I ask any of you, could go home to your husband or wife and say, ‘Is it okay for me to test the waters, play the field a little bit, go on a singles cruise?’ See what your partner says to you. It’s going to be an expensive conversation.”
Of course, if the tribes ever did stop making payments to the state, regulators would then presumably exercise an option to shut down slot machine floors at those casinos.
End of the tribal monopoly?
The idea of bringing more casinos to the state produced some passionate comments during the hearing.
“We are stuck in the past, and it is time to move forward,” said Democratic state Rep. Jack Hennessy. “To say that this is a sacrosanct deal that can’t be amended — that’s not how business is done.”
“I completely disagree with you,” Osten replied. “This is a direct attack on eastern Connecticut; I see no other way around it. I would not try to take jobs away from you. This is pitting region against region, and I’m more than frustrated by this. This would take jobs away from one of the poorest areas of the state.”
But Democratic Reps. Christopher Rosario and Ezequiel Rosario, who represent Bridgeport, took offense at Osten’s description given that city’s economic woes.
“This is life or death. This is about kids going hungry,” said Rosario, bitterly recalling the Legislature’s rejection of a proposed casino in that city in the 1990s that he said could have provided his single mother with a union job. “[Without new jobs] you have people who wind up being incarcerated, or dead. I have been to more wakes and funerals for people under 18 than any of you, probably. It’s hard. Last time I checked, Bridgeport was in the state of Connecticut.”
MGM legal counsel Uri Clinton finally got to face the music in the ninth hour, taking on criticisms that the casino giant has aggressively tried to lure money out of Connecticut to its Springfield property while at the same time wooing Bridgeport. MGM also recently closed on a purchase of Yonkers Raceway and its accompanying large slots parlor not too far from the western Connecticut border.
“I think you’re only here to stymie business in Connecticut,” Osten said.
Republican state Sen. Dan Champagne said that with Clinton projecting significantly lower annual revenues from a potential Bridgeport casino than the state takes in from Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, it made no sense to go forward with an RFP process.
“I don’t know if you know this, but we’re broke,” Champagne said.
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