Op-ed: Critical time to debate future of gambling in Connecticut

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which led to an explosion of Indian and commercial casinos across the country.

Nowhere did casino gambling get off to a more spectacular start than in Connecticut. Foxwoods, owned by the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegan Sun, owned by the Mohegans. They were the first casinos in the Northeast outside Atlantic City and quickly grew into the two largest casinos in the world — drawing over half their combined customers from outside Connecticut, creating 20,000 casino jobs, and sending hundreds of millions of dollars a year in shared slot revenue to the state.

The casinos also have a serious downside, however. They have created a pervasive gambling culture in southeastern Connecticut; they’ve skewed the region’s economy heavily toward low-paying service jobs; and they were followed by a sharp spike in the number of state residents seeking treatment for gambling addiction. According to a 2009 state-sponsored study, there had been a 400% increase in arrests for embezzlement since Foxwoods opened, a rate of increase 10 times the national average.

Now a new study published by The Council on Casinos, an independent, nonpartisan group of scholars, contains a serious new warning about casino expansion.

“From time to time,” the Council states “a new institution takes root across the country, and in doing so changes the nation, changes the physical landscape of communities, impacts the patterns and habits of daily life, affects citizens' and communities' economic outcomes and even alters relationships” among its citizens.

Among the Council’s key findings:

• The new American casino is primarily filled with highly addictive slot machines. It caters overwhelmingly to middle and low rollers who live within an hour away, return frequently, and play the slots.

• Modern slot machines have transformed American gambling. They have become sophisticated computers, engineered to create fast, continuous, and repeat betting designed to get players to gamble longer and lose more over time.

• Problem gamblers (those with moderate and severe gambling addiction) account for 40-60 percent of slot machine revenues.

• Casinos extract wealth from communities, weaken nearby businesses, and reduce voluntarism, civic participation, family stability, and other forms of social capital.

As a result of the weak economy and growing competition from casinos in other states, slot revenue at Connectciut's casinos is down over 30% from its peak (with the state's share dropping from $430 million to under $300 million) and is projected to continue to decline as MA and other states open new casinos. With CT's casino monopoly gone and mounting evidence of gambling's negative impact, one would hope the state would focus on finding non-gambling solutions to compensate for its shrinking slot receipts.

Instead, our state government appears determined to double down and promote more gambling. It recently increased the casinos' free play allowance so they can beef up promotions and has begun to put the state in the electronic casino gambling business.

In the last days of the legislative session, Gov. Malloy and the majority leadership pushed through a gambling game called keno (essentially electronic bingo) for restaurants, bars, taverns and convenience stores. They claim it will produce $31 million in its first two years, but Keno was never discussed by the appropriate committees, was not included in the legislative budget, and was never proposed at any time until the final budget document was made public on the day of the vote. Mary Drexler, executive director of the state Council on Problem Gambling, has called the decision to legalize Keno “astounding” given its addictiveness and the problems it will create.

Then the next day a group of legislators proposed introducing video slots in Connecticut beginning at the old dog track in Bridgeport, Sports Haven in New Haven, and the Bradley Teletheater in Windsor Locks.

Still more troubling, Nevada and New Jersey recently legalized in-state online gambling for their casinos, and Governor Malloy has indicated he favors doing the same for Connecticut's casinos. The casinos want it in order to attract younger customers, and experts view it as especially addictive because of the fast pace of the games, their 24-hour availability, and the instant gratification aspect of the action.

It is clearly time for an open and vigorous public debate on the future of state-sponsored gambling in Connecticut, including the extent to which we should try to prop up the casinos, whether to implement or kill keno, what to do about video slots, and whether it is in the state's interest to legalize Internet casino gambling.