A change in governors could be just what Connecticut sports betting needs to finally get up and running.
Last August, then-Gov. Dannel Malloy was rebuffed by the legislature when he requested a special session to approve a renegotiated compact agreement he discussed with the state’s Indian tribes.
As the new session gets into gear, Connecticut Rep. Joe Verrengia offered an explanation in a phone interview about last year’s resistance:
“I think what happened was, quite frankly, it was the will of the legislature to wait it out until we had a new governor. I wasn’t involved in those negotiations, but from what I gather one of the sticking points was there was an issue over a mobile platform and what it would look like.
My understanding is the mobile platform being discussed was restricted to brick-and-mortar within tribal reservations, and not a statewide mobile platform.”
Connecticut’s gaming landscape
Connecticut could have been one of the first states to offer sports betting after the PASPA ruling. However, a 2017 law that authorized the adoption of regulations in the event of a change in federal law went ignored due to complications with tribal gaming.
The state has two tribal casinos: Foxwoods (operated by the Mashantucket Pequot) and the Mohegan Sun (Mohegan). The tribes indicated they want to offer sports betting, but believe they should have an exclusive right in the state.
Last year, George Jepsen, the previous state attorney general, countered with a written opinion. Jepsen wrote that current compacts do not allow the tribes to offer sports betting without further legislative approval, nor do they provide them exclusivity to sports wagering.
Other stakeholders in the state include the lottery and off-track betting facilities, and Verrengia is in favor of an inclusive marketplace.
“When it comes to gaming in the state of Connecticut, whether it’s an expansion of casinos or sports betting, it’s not as easy as flipping a switch because of the compacts that are in place. I think it’s in the best interests for the state of Connecticut to work with various stakeholders to try to come to an amicable agreement.
I would say it’s highly unlikely for there to be legislative support that would allow for exclusivity for the tribes on sports betting.”
Governor needs to act before legislature
The first step toward authorizing Connecticut sports betting is the governor renegotiating compacts with the tribes that include it.
During his campaign, Gov. Ned Lamont indicated that authorizing sports betting would be a priority, and revenue could be used to cut property taxes.
Verrengia, who chairs the Public Safety and Security Committee, said Lamont already is engaging with the legislature on this issue. That makes Verrengia confident there’s a high probability a deal gets done.
“I’ve noticed a vast difference between the previous governor and Gov. Lamont,” Verrengia said. “His office reached out to me a number of times thus far to discuss sports betting, unlike the previous governor who was on the sidelines until the 11th hour.
“I think Gov. Lamont is more engaged in the process, working with different chairman and leaders in the legislature.”
Sports betting expected in budget
Lamont is presenting his budget to the full legislature Feb. 20. Verrengia expects plans for CT sports betting to begin coming into focus then.
“I’m pretty certain that we’ll see revenue streams that are related to sports betting in the upcoming budget,” Verrengia said. “I think the political will is there to get it done sooner rather than later.
“It’s just a matter of renegotiating the compacts and allowing for additional stakeholders to get a piece of the sports betting business.”
Finalizing the budget is expected to take until the end of the session on June 9, but a sports betting bill could pass sooner.
Territorial battle could ensue
While there is wide legislative support for CT sports betting, it could still get caught in political turmoil.
The bill introduced this year, S 665, while merely a placeholder, seems a strong indication that sports betting has immense legislative support. It was introduced by a bipartisan group of nine legislators led by Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney.
Verrengia points out this is going to be the tribal bill, introduced by senators from districts with tribal influence.
“This is really unlike any issue I’ve ever worked on in that this is not a Republican or Democrat issue here in the state of Connecticut,” Verrengia said. “It’s territorial. It all depends where you’re from. Sports betting could get tied up in the political arena as different factions are digging a line in the sand.”
Casinos also in the mix
There are issues around casino expansion where those lines could be drawn. The tribes want to jointly open a commercial casino outside their reservations in East Windsor. They got legislative approval in 2017, but the venture is caught up in legal issues.
Meanwhile, MGM Resorts wants to open the state’s first commercial casino in Bridgeport, the most populous city in Connecticut. Verrengia thinks this all needs to be resolved at once.
“I believe that sports betting should be a piece of an overall gambling policy for the state,” Verrengia said. “I think, one way or the other, the casino issue has to be addressed, sooner than later, while we still have sports betting on the table from a strategic negotiation standpoint.
“We need to all come together, get this worked out and move on.”
Chances for passage in Connecticut still good
While the stakeholder differences might make the chances to pass Connecticut sports betting seem bleak, Verrengia remains optimistic.
Despite the strife, all the stakeholders want sports betting. The governor and legislative leadership are in favor of making it happen.
“The positive thing is there really is a lot of support for sports betting,” Verrengia said. “It’s just a matter of how we’re going to get there.”
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