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Will sports betting approval in Connecticut crap out?

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Those wagering on sports betting finally being legalized in Connecticut this year may want to hold those bets.

Three bills approving sports betting under varying scenarios have been introduced. But with the short session — the Legislature is scheduled to end its session on May 6 — and the COVID-19 crisis, getting any of them voted upon, much less approved, may be a tall order.

And that’s not even counting the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes that have threatened to withhold the more than $250 million in annual slot revenues they pass on to the state should it pass a law allowing other entities the rights to sports betting — something for which the tribes say they have the exclusive rights, as they do with other casino games.

sports betting connecticutThe tribes are in favor of SB 21, a bill co-sponsored by state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague. Similar to legislation she proposed last year, SB 21 would give sports betting rights exclusively to the tribes that would also get the go-ahead to jointly operate the long-debated casino in downtown Bridgeport. The bill would also allow for the tribes to operate up to three other gaming sites in the state.

That bill also would add online casino gaming and Keno to its sports betting operations as well as authorizing an online lottery as a means for the state to get a direct piece of the action.

A second bill, HB 5168, co-sponsored by Rep. Joseph Gresko, D-Stratford, would permit the Connecticut Lottery to offer sports betting and allow both the tribes and OTBs to apply for licenses. While licensees would be able to offer both online and mobile sports betting without having a physical presence in the state, land-based betting would be allowed only on tribal lands.

The third bill, SB 212, which has no co-sponsors, includes the lottery and OTBs as well as the online lottery, casino gaming and Keno.

Gresko’s bill would effectively “follow New Jersey’s lead,” he told the Business Journal. “We’re just following multiple states in establishing some sports betting in our state.”

Just what that revenue would be is open to debate, but the potential is certainly significant. According to the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, the state saw $4.5 billion wagered in 2019 — 84% of it from mobile bets, something that New York failed to authorize last year. New Jersey took in more than $100 million in taxes via sports betting last year.

Gov. Ned Lamont has spoken in support of Gresko’s bill, with his spokesman Max Reiss describing it as “simpler” than Osten’s as it “focuses exclusively on sports betting, and is, therefore, more achievable in this short legislative session.

“It also builds upon the state’s existing partnership with the tribes, is more likely to withstand legal challenges from third-party competitors, and promotes a fair and competitive sports betting market outside the tribes’ reservations,” Reiss said.

But the tribes have been resistant to such arguments, as evidenced during a March 3 public hearing by the Public Safety and Security Committee to discuss the various bills. Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council, butted heads with Rep. Joe Verrengia, D-West Hartford, chairman of the committee.

Butler said the tribes object to Lamont’s “take it or leave it” offer.

“Two sides could agree to disagree,” Verrengia, who favors Gresko’s bill, finally said. “It’s in the best interest of both not to draw a line in the sand. Both parties have to compromise, but to this point, the tribes are still claiming exclusivity. I’m not sure where the talk of ‘take it or leave it’ came from, but that’s how I feel sometimes.”

“We maintain that sports betting falls into our tribal exclusivity … and I am here today not because we want to work against you, but because we want to work with you, to collaborate,” Butler replied.

Following the hearing, Butler issued a statement expanding on his comments.

“While (Lamont) refers to his attempt to negotiate a ‘gaming solution,’ the governor and his staff have had little to no communication with the tribes over the last several months — despite our repeated attempts to meet,” Butler said. “Then, less than 24 hours before [March 3’s] Public Safety hearing, the governor put a brand-new, take-it-or-leave-it proposal on the table, with the full understanding that it was unacceptable to the tribes and puts at risk more than $250 million in annual slot revenue payments to the state, along with thousands of jobs. That’s not negotiating, and it contradicts the governor’s claim that his proposal ‘builds upon the state’s existing partnership with the tribes.’ “

Gresko told the Business Journal that he wasn’t out to do wrong by the tribes.

“The tribes have upheld their end of the compact for years,” he said. “I’m in no way disparaging them. I’m appreciative of all they’ve done for the state, in terms of jobs created and the like.”

But “they’re trying to weave out of their lane,” Gresko continued. “We should be able to operate sports betting, iLottery and internet sports betting without violating the compact. This is not a win/lose kind of thing.”

Gresko said he did not support Osten’s bill, “because that’s basically saying, ‘We might put a casino in Bridgeport’ — that’s the carrot they’re leading people down the path with. ‘Give us a monopoly again on sports betting, and we’ll give you some crumbs off the table.’ I’d rather not be beholden to that.”

“Competition drives success,” said Rep. J.P. Sredzinski, R-Monroe and Newtown, the leading House Republican on the Public Safety and Security Committee. “We have a huge black market, and all of our surrounding states, if they haven’t legalized (sports betting) already, they will be soon.”

Rep. Caroline Simmons, D-Stamford, said she is in favor of a casino in Bridgeport.

Public Safety has a deadline of March 17 to vote upon which measure, if any, it will recommend to the General Assembly.

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