Connecticut Tribes And State Officials Butting Heads On Sports Betting

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Connecticut sports betting butting heads

Things are escalating quickly on the Connecticut sports betting front.

Two Native American gaming tribes threatened to stop slot revenue payments to the state if sports betting is legalized in Connecticut without their blessing.

Then just yesterday, a state lawmaker introduced an amendment to a sports betting bill to specifically exclude sports wagering from the state’s gambling provisions, in what would appear to be a way to get around the tribal compacts. It does not appear as that amendment was adopted, from the bill’s history online, however.

No matter what’s in the bill, however, it all adds up to a messy path forward for sports gambling in the state, which started off the year as a hot topic in the state.

The initial details come from a Connecticut Post report this week. Representatives of the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes say legalized sports betting violates their state compacts. A recent opinion from Connecticut’s attorney general disagrees with that take though.

Connecticut receives 25 percent of slot revenue from tribal casinos including Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun. With about $250 million annually from two of the country’s largest Indian casinos in play, it appears to be a dangerous game that Connecticut is playing.

“The tribes have been great partners and I’m sure we will have conversations,” House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz told the Post.

Where sports betting falls under the law is the key

An April 17 letter to Aresimowicz from Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen responds to numerous questions. It offers analysis of what happens to existing agreements if the US Supreme Court repeals PASPA — aka the federal sports wagering ban — and Connecticut authorizes sports betting:

Connecticut’s agreements with the Tribes require the legislature to carefully consider a number of factors before legalizing sports wagering. In the event PASPA is struck down and state law continues to prohibit sports wagering (as it presently does), because sports wagering is a Class III game under federal law and is not an authorized game under either of the respective Compacts, the Tribes would still be prohibited from conducting sports wagering on their reservations.

Moreover, it is our opinion that if sports betting were to become lawful in Connecticut, the Tribes would not have an exclusive right under the existing Compacts and MOUs to offer it … Sports betting is not listed as an authorized game. By contrast, for example, pari-mutuel betting on horse and dog racing and jai alai games are authorized games. Id. The exclusion of sports betting from the specific list of authorized games is compelling evidence that the Compacts do not presently authorize it …

Amendments to the Compacts would be necessary to authorize the Tribe’s sports betting … Thus, our opinion is that the Compacts do not presently authorize the Tribes to conduct sports betting on their reservations. Nor are we aware of any other federal or state law that would be a basis for the Tribes to assert an exclusive right over sports betting.

How the tribes say sports betting breaks their deal

Exactly how Connecticut casinos would facilitate sports betting remains the primary issue under current law. Video kiosks could be used to place wagers — that is where the tribes see an opening. The tribes have exclusivity over “video facsimile” gaming in the state.

“If the state authorizes video facsimile gaming, the exclusivity provisions of (the compacts) would be violated and our obligations to make the slot contributions cease,” said Mohegan Attorney General Helga Woods in the CT Post report.

Jepsen’s opinion does not concur with that assessment, but leaves open a window for the tribes.

“Although it is our view that sports wagering is not a video facsimile, whether it is a ‘commercial casino game’ is an open question.”

The state holds some leverage as well. Jepsen makes clear that a broken compact could call into question the legality of operating slot machines on tribal lands.

Neither side wants to get to that point, of course. Connecticut also appears unlikely to pass a sports betting bill this session, lessening the urgency a bit. The tribes likely want in on sports betting as well, making compromise more plausible.