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The Tri-State region is the first front in the battle for legal sports betting in the US. Connecticut is sometimes overshadowed by its neighbors, as New York and New Jersey garner most of the headlines.
The Constitution State may be the smallest of the three, but it’s shaping up to be a battleground for sports betting. Some key stakeholders have expressed opposition to expansion. And there’s a potential storm brewing between tribal and commercial interests, too. Who would run a sports betting industry in the state?
Lawmakers will debate these issues during an upcoming public hearing.
For the second year in a row, the Public Safety and Security Committee will hold a sports betting hearing sometime in February. A lot has changed since the last one, though.
In 2017, Gov. Dannel Malloy signed off on a gaming package that includes provisions to regulate sports betting.
The new law directed the Commissioner of Consumer Protection, Michelle Seagull, to adopt regulations to the extent permitted by federal law. There wasn’t much to act on immediately, as single-game wagering remains illegal outside of the Nevada sports betting industry.
Shortly thereafter, though, the US Supreme Court granted New Jersey a hearing regarding its own efforts to legalize sports betting. The court is expected to rule this year, and its decision will set the tone for the future of the industry in the US.
If the federal law on sports betting is struck down by the nation’s highest court, Connecticut will need to be prepared to act on its own law. And it appears to be taking the first forward steps.
Rep. Joe Verrengia, who co-chairs the committee, will moderate the hearing. Verrengia is a proponent of both sports betting and casino expansion.
In some ways, Connecticut has its nose out in front of the sports betting pack. While more than a dozen states are considering sports betting bills, Connecticut is one of the handful that have already taken legislative steps.
In other ways, though, the state is pretty far from the finish line. The climate for gambling is volatile.
Commercial casino developers have been shut out of the state in favor of the tribes, a stance that was recently redoubled via the gaming package. The Masahantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes will be permitted to build a third casino on commercial land in East Windsor.
MGM will almost certainly bring its lawyers to the table, which could clog up the legislative process on gaming issues. The state also has more than a dozen off-track betting facilities that want to be included in the discussion.
The timeline is also a concern. Connecticut must stay out in front of legislation in order to compete with its neighbors. New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have all legalized sports betting pending a change in the federal climate.
The Connecticut government is spread a bit thin, though. The department that oversees sports betting also tends to small businesses, liquor licenses, medical marijuana regulations and the state’s casino industry.
Verrengia has already made his position on the issue clear. He supports both sports betting and the expansion of commercial casinos, particularly in Bridgeport. Sports betting is the key issue in his mind, though.
“I want to put the state of Connecticut in a position where we’re ready to move forward on it,” Verrengia told The Day. “I think it’s going to have equal or bigger impact (than casino expansion) on gaming in the state. I’d like to think I’m all over that.”
He appears to have plenty of support from his colleagues, too.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz told the CT Post that he wants sports betting to be “one of the first bills” voted out of committee this year. “It’s another area where if we don’t act, other states will,” he said.
Senate President pro tempore Martin Looney echoed those thoughts. “I believe that Connecticut should move very speedily ahead on sports betting if we are authorized to do so by the US Supreme Court,” he said. “We need additional sources of revenue.”
Lawmakers begin their new year of work on Feb. 7.
Not everyone is so keen on sports betting in Connecticut, though.
Here’s Sen. Len Fasano, the Republican leader in his chamber: “This is just lunacy. Just deal with the problems that you have and stop pretending that legalizing drugs and expanding gambling is the panacea.”
The tribes could also stand in the way of legal sports betting. They currently pay 25 percent of their gambling revenue to the state, an agreement which could be jeopardized by the addition of commercial casinos. The tribes have already indicated they’ll push back on any law that infringes on their gaming exclusivity.
A compromise might include reducing the revenue-sharing rate between the state and the tribes in exchange for the allowance of a commercial casino in Bridgeport.
The bottom line: The path to legal sports betting might not be a smooth one.