Online wagering: the state’s deal, not Lamont’s deal

There is one justification, one pressing reason, to expand casino gaming and sports betting to online access, and that is money. Connecticut needs the revenue, which is currently going to other states that allow online betting and may be close to extending online access to mobile apps.

The state needs the money not just to make up for the shrinking amounts it gets from slots at the state’s two tribal casinos, but because it is politically easier to give people the chance to win, however remote, than to clobber them with more taxes.

Or it used to be. Now, for the second year in a row — paused by the COVID-19 pandemic — the General Assembly expects to take up a bill that would authorize the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe and the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut to conduct sports wagering on their lands, online sports wagering, and online casino gaming. The bill, introduced by Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and 16 colleagues from both parties, would also allow the Connecticut Lottery to sell draw-game tickets and operate keno games on line; set security standards for Internet gaming; and specifies that its purpose is to provide revenue to the state.

The expected debate last session was going to be rugged. Gov. Ned Lamont preferred to conduct his own negotiations and was set on avoiding lawsuits that would hold up implementation of the new revenue sources. He did not want the advice or consent of the legislature.

He still doesn’t, he told The Day Editorial Board last week. And in fact, the governor has the sole authority to renegotiate the gaming compacts with the two tribes — without which very little can change and the revenues will continue to drop. The compacts give the tribes exclusive rights to casino games, for which they pay the state 25% of gross slots revenue, producing more than $8 billion for the state since 1993. Lamont and the tribes have been talking, and the tribes have deferred their planned East Windsor casino development.

A change in compact does, however, require the approval of the General Assembly. With the bill introduced this session, legislators from eastern Connecticut are arguing for the state to support the request of two of its largest employers to expand their business and thus shore up their own revenues. Under an astutely renegotiated compact, that could significantly increase the revenue stream to the state.

The governor should welcome the proposal of the elected representatives from this region to set the parameters by statute. It should strengthen his negotiating position to have the force of recently enacted law behind him. The outcome would not be just his deal; it would be the state’s deal.

The legislature also has a role to play in debating the implications of online betting, however dire the state’s need for new revenue. Some legislators, including the new House majority leader, Jason Rojas of East Hartford, have signaled their intentions to discuss the effects of easy access to gambling on the poor and on problem gambling. That conversation should be out there for public awareness. Without legislative debate, it is unlikely to be mentioned.

The pandemic not only delayed online wagering from coming to Connecticut; it meanwhile increased the use of digital devices in all other areas of business, education and public life. People now expect access. We agree with the governor that the time has come for the state to buy in.

We urge him to include the legislature in framing the basis of the arrangement, and to give priority to honoring and refreshing the government’s longstanding agreement with the tribal nations. The proposed bill recognizes that the tribes already have a deal; they have kept their end of the bargain, they have the experience, and their success benefits the region and the state. That should be the starting point.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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