Lawmakers Tackle Video Slots As Gaming Revenue Declines
An analyst speaking for one of three Connecticut off-track betting sites seeking to offer video gambling warned lawmakers Thursday that gaming revenue is declining as gambling expands in nearby states.
Clyde Barrow, a public policy professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, spoke to a task force of lawmakers Thursday on behalf of Shoreline Star Greyhound Park, an off-track betting facility in Bridgeport.
Shoreline Star is one of three such locations seeking legislative approval to expand video gaming on their premises. The Sports Haven in New Haven and the Bradley Tele-Theater in Windsor Locks are also seeking the change.
In the final days of this year’s legislative session, lawmakers representing the three towns formed a task force to study the idea. The panel met for the first time Thursday.
Barrow painted a dire picture for the future of Connecticut’s gaming industry, saying the “gambling arms race” is just beginning. Massachusetts likely will license a slot machine parlor this year and two to three major casinos in the coming years. He said New York has authorized a referendum that could clear the way for up to four casinos in that state.
Barrow said the new developments do not bode well for Connecticut’s tribal casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, and the revenue they generate for the state. Thirty-two percent of Foxwoods’ patrons and 19 percent of Mohegan Sun’s patrons come from Massachusetts. If a substantial portion of them choose to visit a casino in their own state, Barrow said Connecticut could lose millions in annual gaming revenue.
“The revenue leakage to adjacent states will accelerate as New York and Massachusetts are poised to compete directly against Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, not only for ‘convenience gamblers’ . . . but also in the ‘destination resort’ market,” he said.
Barrow suggested that state could offer “video lottery terminals.” The machines would be almost indistinguishable from traditional slot machines, but they would be regulated by the Connecticut Lottery Corporation. If they were available at some locations, he said the machines could help to retain some of the “convenience gamblers,” or the people who like to gamble but do not care to travel long distances to do it.
At a press conference before the meeting, Sen. Andres Ayala, a Bridgeport Democrat who co-chairs the task force, said it is the job of the legislature to protect the state’s revenue. Ayala was one of several lawmakers who pushed for the creation of the task force in June.
On Thursday, he downplayed the likelihood that the panel would result in legislative action on the issue next year.
“As of right now there really isn’t any — there’s no legislation that’s going to be submitted to say this is going to forward next session. I think what this is is legislators from the three communities . . . sitting around here having a conversation and saying ‘Look, it’s a possibility,’” he said.
Ayala, whose district includes Shoreline Star, and Rep. Peggy Sayers, a Windsor Locks Democrat whose district includes the Bradley Tele-Theater, put the idea on the table amidst controversy generated by the legislature’s last-minute decision to legalize keno in gathering places and lottery retailers outside the two casinos.
Their panel’s first meeting came on the same day the Connecticut Lottery Corporation approved an online gaming contract that will take effect as soon as the Office of Policy and Management inks a deal with the two tribal casinos regarding revenue sharing.
Asked about whether the lottery had any sort of opinion on video slots, Anne Noble, president and CEO of the Connecticut Lottery Corporation, said “we’re not involved in that.”
During the press conference, Sayers tried to put some distance between keno and video gambling expansion.
“Unlike keno, the pari-mutuel [off-track betting facilities] are licensed gaming facilities, which would make them easy to regulate and control,” she said.
In Connecticut, the tribes have exclusive rights to casino games under a revenue-sharing compact negotiated with the state more than 20 years ago.
Frank Farricker, chairman of the Connecticut Lottery Board, said Thursday that it’s up to the Office of Policy and Management to reach a deal with the tribes. Each tribe is expected to get 12.5 percent of the revenues after the prize money is paid. The lottery is preparing to add up to 600 new retailers to offer keno.
Barrow said the legalization of keno gives lawmakers a place to start with regard to expanding gaming in the state.
“The Connecticut state legislature’s authorization of Keno this year as part of the state’s lottery portfolio provides at least a precedent for how expanded gaming can be introduced with the consent of the tribes in exchange for a share of revenues,” he said.
However, the continuing growth of gambling in Connecticut has some advocates worried. Mary Drexler, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, was in the audience Thursday as the task force met for the first time.
Drexler said she intends to present information to the panel, which is made up entirely of lawmakers. She said adding “highly addictive” video slots to facilities that allow on their premises patrons as young as 18 may present problems.
“Our concern is: how much is too much in the state of Connecticut? We’re bringing it closer to youth, we’re getting it more into communities,” she said.
Christine Stuart contributed to this report.