Keno not enough? Lawmakers want slot machines in their cities

Tired of watching neighboring states expanding gambling while Connecticut’s revenue from the casinos steadily declines, a handful of Democratic legislators Monday threw their support behind allowing 7,500 slot machines to open in Bridgeport, New Haven and Windsor Locks.

“The tide of competition has just begun to rise,” said Sen. Andres Ayala Jr., D-Bridgeport, the vice chairman of the Public Safety and Security Committee. “This is about us being proactive.”

But gambling opponents seized the group’s press conference to vent about the state budget approved by the House over the weekend, which expands gambling in the state by allowing Keno games for the first time in facilities outside the state’s two casinos.

“We feel thrown under the bus… No one has looked at the social cost,” Mary Drexler, the executive director of the Connecticut Council of Problem Gambling, told the six legislators during the press conference at the state Capitol.

She added that their call to set up a task force to pave the way for further expanding gambling at the Shoreline Star in Bridgeport, Sports Haven in New Haven and the Tele-Theater in Windsor Locks is also problematic.

Deron Drumm, who helps inmates with gambling problems transition back home, said the state falls short in helping those on parole get over their gambling addictions.

“There is nothing available,” he said, pointing out that when it comes to addiction issues, the only help available is for drugs and alcohol. “The state benefits greatly off of gambling, not off of drugs and alcohol.”

Currently the state’s casinos operated by the Indian tribes have exclusive rights to provide Keno and video slot machines, the type of gambling the legislators Monday were supporting. 

Chuck Bunnell, the chief of staff for the Mohegan tribe, said that “any expansion of gaming as proposed would require the approval of both [Connecticut] Tribes or it would jeopardize the current slot contribution.”

Bunnell added his tribe is “willing to talk” to lawmakers “regarding our position.”

Asked Monday about the inclusion of Keno in the budget in an effort to generate $30.8 million for the state over the next two years, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he is happy with the budget, but Keno “was not my suggestion.”

The budget does not include any additional funding for problem gambling.

“There’s no demonstration that there’s an insufficient amount of money for problem gamblers,” Malloy told reporter during a conference call later in the afternoon. “We’re not an island here in Connecticut. We’re surrounded by Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York — all of which have Keno.”

It is widely accepted that the casinos that will soon begin popping up in Massachusetts will cause a major cut in revenue the state receives from its casinos.

Connecticut has received 25 percent of receipts from slot games at its Indian casinos since 1993, when then-Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. negotiated a compact with the tribes that ended the state’s legal objections to casino gambling. 

Last fiscal year, the state received $344.6 million from the casinos — $30.9 million less than lawmakers had budgeted for. In the current fiscal year, the state is expected to receive $292.7 million from the casinos.

When Massachusetts lawmakers agreed to allow casinos to open two years ago, Connecticut’s nonpartisan budget office estimated the state may be headed for a $95 million-a-year cut in funding from Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun resorts, a 25 percent reduction.

The group of legislators Monday said that allowing their three facilities to open slots would help offset this loss of funding.

“We are seeing competition surrounding us,” said Rep. Peggy Sayers, D-Windsor Locks.

“Let’s go on the offense,” said Jim Amann, a former House Speaker and now a lobbyist for Shoreline Star in Bridgeport.

But Bunnell of the Mohegan tribe said that opening these facilities with the intention to compete with their casinos could be problematic.

“The Mohegans are aggressively pursuing a license in Western [Massachusetts] so we could not support competition to our proposal for Mohegan Sun Massachusetts,” he said in a statement.

Legislators point to a 2008 report by Cummings Associates as proof of the potential revenue that expanding video slots machines at the three locations would bring in.

“We find that the revenues from such facilities are indeed likely to be substantial,” the report says. The report estimates between $160 million and $222 million in new revenue if these three facilities were able to open slot machines.

“This is about a very discrete, potential expansion of three establishments in the state,” said state Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, vice chairman of the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.

Nearly one-third and one-fifth of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun patrons are from Massachusetts and an additional 5 percent and 3 percent are from Maine, New Hampshire or Vermont, according to the report by the Policy Analysis Center at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth.