May 24, 2018

Sports betting may be coming to Connecticut — and your iPhone

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy often says America was better off when legal gambling was limited to Las Vegas, but he sounded Wednesday like a man who has accepted that sports betting is coming to Connecticut at casinos, possibly some form of state-authorized betting parlors and even on smart phones.

The Land of Steady Habits, long a beneficiary of a revenue-sharing deal with its two tribal casinos and an aggressive Connecticut Lottery Corporation that generates more cash for the state than the casinos, is being asked to quickly address a topic legislators managed to duck in the recently concluded annual session.

Responding to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down Nevada's monopoly and gives every state the right to allow sports betting, Malloy met Wednesday with legislative leaders to lay the groundwork for him to negotiate new gambling agreements with the state's two federally recognized tribes and for the legislature to return in special session.

"I need to know whether it's the intention to include in-state, on-line gaming, because it would make sense to negotiate those things in one negotiation as opposed to two negotiations," Malloy said. "And I think, quite frankly, doing them together makes it more like we would reach agreements with the two tribal nations."

Undisputed is that if Connecticut legalizes sports betting, then the tribes are permitted under the federal Indian Regulatory Gaming Act to open sports books at their casinos, Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun. Unclear is whether the tribes have a claim on a share of the state's sports action or even exclusive rights to sports wagering under their gambling agreements with the state.

At issue is whether sports betting, long offered at Las Vegas casinos, is a casino game. The tribes now pay Connecticut 25 percent of their gross slots revenues in return for exclusive rights to all casino games, a deal that produced about $270 million for the state in 2017.

There is ample reason for Connecticut and the tribes to come to terms over sharing sports betting. Connecticut seems intent on pursuing it. If the tribes say that abrogates their exclusivity deal and ends the revenue sharing, then they also would lose their strongest argument against allowing MGM Resorts International from opening a casino in Bridgeport. Malloy, on the other hand, is unwilling to risk the immediate loss of so much revenue in return for sports betting.

In remarks to reporters after his meeting with legislators, Malloy seemed consigned to the prospects of every smart phone becoming a potential betting device, something that worries problem-gambling experts. He noted that off-shore companies already offer internet gambling, whether legal or not, as do old-fashioned bookies.

"You're asking questions about how you will prevent that which we already have been unable to prevent in the past," Malloy said. "I think the right way to ask this question is how do we build the best system and the fairest system that allows for gaming, which now is going to become more common nationally than it has in he past."

Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, perhaps the legislature's most outspoken opponent of gambling expansion, said the seemingly inexorable spread of sports betting is no reason for Connecticut to permit it.

" 'Everybody doing it' doesn't mean we should," Hwang said. "It is important for us to really take a step back and take a look at sports gambling and online gambling. The National Council on Problem Gambling says online and sports gambling are gateway drugs."

Sports betting is irresistible to many males in their teens, and combining it with smart phones that are addictive in their own way is troublesome, he said. Surveys show that 44 percent of boys report betting at least once on sports from age 13 through graduating from high school, he said.

Legislative leaders of both parties said after meeting with Malloy they would give him direction next week on how expansive an agreement he should negotiate with the tribes. The consensus was the state was ready to go forward with some form of sports wagering, while hedging on internet betting.

Whatever Malloy negotiates with the tribes will be done in concurrence with the legislature, he said.

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