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East Windsor Casino, Sports Betting Debated As Connecticut Considers Gaming Expansion

Frankie Graziano
Connecticut Public Radio
A supporter of the effort to build Connecticut's third casino in East Windsor wears a sticker bearing the project's name at a Public Safety and Security Committee hearing on February 26 in Hartford.

State lawmakers are taking up several gambling related bills, including ones that would expand sports betting and another on a proposed East Windsor casino.

They were debated at a Public Safety and Security Committee hearing in the Legislative Office Building in Hartford on Tuesday, February 26.

One senate bill has been floated as a way to skirt federal approval to get Connecticut’s third casino built in East Windsor.

Paul Formica, a state senator who represents New London and several towns in southeastern Connecticut, asked his colleagues to support that bill.

“That bill had a requirement for the secretary of the interior to weigh in regarding their approval – a requirement requiring that S.B. 11 seeks to remove as unnecessary,” Formica said. “This is a Connecticut issue -- Connecticut revenue and Connecticut jobs – and politics in Washington shouldn’t play any part in this particular decision.”

The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes formed a joint bid to obtain a license for a commercial casino away from tribal land. Then-Gov. Dannel Malloy signed legislation in 2017 that gave this venture a gaming license to build the state’s third casino.

But the project has been held up. It hasn’t gotten federal approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a division of the United States Department of the Interior. The state and the MMCT Venture originally thought they’d get an answer shortly after passing the law in 2017. But, the interior secretary didn’t respond in time.

The tribes have filed a civil lawsuit against the Department of the Interior to get that approval.

There’s also news reported by the Connecticut Mirror this week that Ryan Zinke, the former secretary of the interior, is being investigating by the Department of Justice over his refusal to approve amendments to the gaming compacts. Zinke resigned earlier this year. He’s been accused of lying to investigators that made an inquiry into how he may have derailed the casino project.

“The federal investigators were the interior department’s inspector general’s office, which had done an investigation of how the casino petitions had been handled by the interior department,” Radelat said. “Zinke was questioned about them and what they seem to be looking at now is whether he told the truth.”

Radelat said the proceedings are closed to the public and that they may have started back in December.

Rodney Butler, the chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, said Tuesday that he’s “anxious for that outcome, but we don’t need to wait at the state level” for the conclusion of the federal grand jury investigation.

Yet, the MMCT Venture hasn’t built the casino in the absence of federal approval. Butler said the project is “shovel-ready” and the old structure that was on the land of the proposed third casino in East Windsor was demolished in March 2018.

The Mohegan compact with the state ended up being approved last May. The amendment to Connecticut’s compact with the Mashantucket Pequots was never okay’d.

Credit Frankie Graziano / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
The tribes were represented at a February 26 Public Safety and Security Committee hearing by Mashantucket Pequot chairman Rodney Butler (left) and Ray Pineault (right), the president/general manager of the Mohegan Sun Casino.

Meanwhile, the state legislature is taking up two proposed bills related to legalized sports betting this session.

One bill, would authorize sports betting and the other expands gambling, including sports betting and keno, to online platforms.

“Across the country, sports wagering is considered a casino game, which means if falls under the exclusivity portion of our agreements with the state,” Butler said.

Last May, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an old federal ban on sports betting outside of Nevada. As a result, Connecticut now has the ability to authorize sports betting in the state. One complicating factor is that both tribes argue that the state would be violating the compacts should it authorize sports betting elsewhere. Breaking those compacts could come with significant risk to the state -- it could mean losing the cut Connecticut gets from slot machine revenue at the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos.

Craig Fishbein, a state representative out of Cheshire and Wallingford, disputes the exclusivity claim.

“I don’t think the compact has anything to do with sports wagering,” Fishbein said. “The argument doesn’t make sense to me because sports wagering wasn’t legal at the time of the compact being entered into.”

Butler said that both tribes have had ongoing dialogue with Governor Ned Lamont about their position on sports betting.

If you read any of Frankie Graziano’s previous biographies, they’d be all about his passion for sports. But times change – and he’s a family man now.

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