A long-awaited gambling expansion bill cleared the Connecticut Senate late Tuesday, moving the state closer toward finally legalizing sports betting and online wagering after years of debate and failed negotiations with the state's two federally recognized tribal nations.
The legislation passed on a bipartisan 28 to 6 vote shortly before midnight. It includes an agreement Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont reached in March with the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, the owners and operators of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun in southeastern Connecticut. The same bill was approved by the House of Representatives last week and now awaits Lamont's expected signature.
It allows the governor to amend the state's compacts with the tribes that govern gambling, enabling both to offer sports betting, online gambling and online fantasy sports in return for providing the state a share of the revenues. Those amended compacts will still need to be approved by the U.S. Department of Interior, which proponents hope can be done quickly and in time for the NFL season, helping Connecticut catch up to neighboring states that have already allowed sports wagering.
“A little over three years ago the Supreme Court cleared the way for states to legalize sports betting," said state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague. “Since that timeframe, more than half of the country has already taken action to legalize this.”
The legislation also allows the quasi-public Connecticut Lottery Corporation to offer online sports wagering and retail sports betting at 15 locations, including ones specifically located in Hartford and Bridgeport.
For internet gambling, the state’s tax rate on gross revenues will be 18% for the first five years and then 20% for the next five years, with an option to continue for another five years. The tax rate on sports betting and fantasy contests will be 13.75%.
State Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, who has consistently opposed gambling expansion legislation, warned that allowing online gambling and sports betting will only exacerbate the state's gambling addiction problem, especially with a younger generation that has grown up using smart phone technology. He urged his fellow lawmakers to further increase funding for gambling awareness and treatment and conduct a thorough study of how expanded gambling has impacted the state.
“I hope that we don't come back here 10, 15 years and say, ‘Boy, did we make a mistake? Did we unleash a scourge of addiction and problem gambling onto our future generations?'" he asked. “I hope I'm wrong.”
Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, said she's also concerned about problem gambling, but decided to support the bill to help Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, two major employers in eastern Connecticut that have been facing growing competition for years and were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced them to close for two-and-a-half months.
“They're key, important economic partners,” she said of the tribal nations. “Their employees are my constituents, who I'm charged to represent.”
As in the House, senators whose districts include or are located near East Windsor, criticized the deal for preventing the tribes from building a planned satellite casino in the town to compete with the MGM casino in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts. The legislation bars the off-reservation tribal casino from being built during the first 10 years of this new agreement with the state.
The Fantasy Sports & Gaming Association has also raised concerns about the bill, warning that thousands of Connecticut residents who play fantasy sports for money using online companies could be sidelined for the upcoming NFL season if legislation as currently written becomes law. The group said the legislation prevents fantasy sports companies from continuing to operate in Connecticut after July 1 and until the state sets up a licensing system and these firms are ultimately approved for a license.
Asked about the industry's criticism, Paul Mounds, Lamont’s chief of staff who led the negotiations on the gambling agreement, said Monday the legislation will ultimately ensure fantasy sports can be legally played in the state.
“We look forward to having continuous conversations with entities in the daily fantasy space as Connecticut looks to solidify and finalize the legalization of daily fantasy sports in the state of Connecticut,” he said.
Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, said he looked forward to the legislation passing in the Senate. Butler has been urging the General Assembly for years to pass legislation that legalizes sports betting and internet gambling in Connecticut.
“As we have said, gaming is more than a business for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation," he said in a written statement. "It is the way we support our government, educate our children, underwrite youth programs, and take care of our elders. Tonight’s vote will be another milestone in what has been a long journey.”