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Governor Ned Lamont and Rodney Butler, president of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, last year when sports betting talks broke down. Frankie Graziano/Connecticut Public Radio
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Mashantucket – Gamblers money jumps quickly as a small band of Mashantucket Pequots drill for oil in their Great Cedar Swamp. CBS’s “60 Minutes” came to tell the exuberant story of a tribe coming back from near extinction, its growing ranks blessed with BMWs and luxury homes, the byproducts of a new casino in the woods of eastern Connecticut.
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The CBS story aired in 1994, two years after Foxwoods Resort Casino opened on a sleepy stretch of Route 2 that runs between Boston and New York. Within a three-hour drive lies an exclusive gambling market of 22 million people, the envy and hatred of an Atlantic City casino owner named Donald J. Trump.
But for a long time no one talked about Pequots, BMWs and luxury homes. The generous stipends that were once paid to every adult member of the tribe have long since disappeared. And Rodney Butler, the current chairman of the tribal council, drives a 15-year-old Acura. It is a matter of preference, but not without symbolism.
“We are a billion-dollar entity, a city and a family trust, all at the same time. I can’t imagine anything more complicated than that. Rodney Butler President, Mashantucket Pequots
A quarter of a century after CBS introduced Pequote to America, when the idea of a gaming resort was new to New England, much has changed. A failure at casinos, Trump found success elsewhere. The Northeast is full of casinos, all but a handful of states make money from some form of legal gambling, and Connecticut and Pequot lawmakers want to expand the market.
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Connecticut took in $628.9 million from gambling last year, reflecting a slow cultural shift in the state that banned alcohol sales on Good Friday until a 1981 court ruling and stubbornly clings to the remnants of blue Sunday laws in the new millennium. Gambling is an itch that can now be scratched in any business, as evidenced by the state’s $1.3 billion in annual lottery sales.
The state is a de facto partner in Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun Casino, which was opened in 1996 by the neighboring Pequot tribe, the Mohegans. In a shrewd negotiation brokered by Governor Lowell P. Weicker Jr., the state granted the two federally recognized tribes exclusive casino gaming rights, a move that both strengthened and curved the casino market.
The partnership is being tested as Connecticut’s governor and lawmakers raise questions about the state’s tolerance for more gambling, what it owes those tribal partners and whether the political will exists to make tough decisions. Governor Ned Lamont’s dreams of a grand bargain, a consensus of competing commercial and tribal interests, proved naive.
Sportech PLC, a British company that holds Connecticut rights for off-track betting on dogs, horses and Jai Alai, wants to accept sports bets. MGM Resorts International wants to compete for the rights. The same goes for the Connecticut Lottery, an ostensibly public agency that immediately turned scratch tickets into a steady source of income. More than half of the tickets sold are instant scratch tickets, some costing $30 per game.
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The lottery returned $370 million to the state fund last year; direct payments to tribes another $255 million; and OTB, $3 million.
The state receives 25% of the slot machine “Hold” – money that does not return to the players – at both casinos. With the state’s share steadily falling to $255 million from a peak of $430 million in 2007, the tribes and the state share a common goal of attracting or creating new players through sports betting, online betting and other games.
“Connecticut has sat on the sidelines long enough on this issue.” Max Reiss Spokesman for Governor Ned Lamont
It is unclear how permissive the land of constant habits will be in the new digital age of gaming. The technology makes it possible to bet on sports, buy lottery tickets and play simulated slot machines and casino games on your smartphone. A secondary question is how much of the action is recorded by the tribes.
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Sen. Rep. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, whose district is home to both tribes, is pushing for almost anything — a big shot.
“I met with the governor’s office about it,” East said. “I’m not saying they agree, but that’s the bill I’m tabling.”
East presents his bill as a way to strengthen the Mashantucket Pequot/Mohegan Fund, the name for the formula that distributes a portion of the state’s automatic income to each of the 169 towns. In 2002, payments peaked at $139 million, then fell as the state kept more and more of the slot machine sales to balance its budget. Fund payments this year will total $51 million.
Senator Cathy East district includes both tribes and their casinos. Ryan Caron King/CT Public Radio
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“What I’ve done is figure out what we need in terms of revenue to get us to where we were in 2002,” Osten said. It is an approach designed to build political support and expand the dollars and cents of additional state aid available to municipalities.
That amounts to allowing aggressive online gambling, which House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, believes is unlikely to happen in the near future. A gradual step, most likely sports betting in casinos and other places, will be delayed, he said.
“I think that every year that goes by is a shame. We lose market share,” said Ritter, who calls for a minimalist approach. “That’s my recommendation – run it.”
“Connecticut has been on the sidelines long enough on this issue,” said Max Reiss, the governor’s communications director. “We want to continue the discussion to ensure that Connecticut can take advantage of this opportunity with all stakeholders at the table.”
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Sports gambling is expected to generate a relatively modest increase in revenue for the state. East’s bill projects $13 million a year, though he calls that figure conservative. Legalizing other forms of online betting, a more controversial extension, could raise an additional $26 million each year, she estimates.
Their bill would allow tribes that already have permission to build a casino in East Windsor to also build a small casino in Bridgeport. But this project would most likely attract many of the current tribal parties and is mainly aimed at gaining political allies rather than major market expansion.
There is no return to the boom years of the early 90s, when the map of the major US casinos had only three points: Las Vegas, Atlantic City and, incredibly, Mashantucket, Conn. Besides another point for Mohegan Sun, it pretty much stayed that way for 10 years.
“It just exploded after that,” said Butler, chairman of the Pequot Tribal Council. “It’s directly related to the decline.”
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Butler, 42, a married father of two, is what the tribe envisioned when the money started coming in: a young tribal member building a career on a reservation that was nearly abandoned in the 1960s when it became the only Residents are two elderly women who live in difficult conditions.
He studied finance and played football as a walk-on at UConn, where he was coached by coach Skip Holtz Jr. changed from running to defensive. With a well-muscled frame, Butler still looks like an athlete. Shaking hands means he’s giving you a friendly tap on the shoulder.
Butler grew up in Montville, where the Mohegans built their casino in the village of Uncasville in an industrial area along the Thames River. He turned 15 when the tribe opened Foxwoods in February 1992. Because there were still 2000 gamblers in the casino when it was planned, it was open – and never closed. After graduating in 1999, Butler began working at a casino as a financial analyst.
Foxwoods Resort Casino opened on tribal land in 1992. The resort has two hotel towers with a total of 2,266 hotel rooms and an arcade for children and teenagers. The original tower, the Grand Pequot Tower, opened in 1997 and the second in 2008.
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Still in his 20s, he was elected to the board in 2004, a time of growth that transformed Foxwoods into a behemoth, one of the largest casinos in the world. It quickly becomes clear that the Mashantucket Pequots have expanded too much – and at the worst possible time. They borrowed to expand what turned out to be preparation for the deepest economic downturn since the 1930s, the Great Recession of 2008.
In 2006, construction began on the MGM Grand in Foxwoods, a high-rise hotel with 800 rooms, a theater and a gaming floor. The name reflects the already abandoned partnership with MGM, the commercial giant is now fighting bitterly with Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun for market share with MGM Springfield and Empire City Casino.
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