Lottery loses its bid for online ticket sales

Public attention on the legislature's Public Safety and Security Committee last week focused on its approval of two conflicting and problematic casino expansion bills.

Some committee members admitted voting for the measures, even though they oppose them, "to keep the conversation going."

That also strikes me as abdicating responsibility.

On the other hand, I would suggest the committee did the right thing when it came to another pending gambling expansion bill.

Raised Bill 967, which would have allowed the Connecticut Lottery Corporation to sell a wide range of non-instant games online, died unceremoniously in the committee without a vote to bring it to the full General Assembly.

Apparently not enough committee members wanted to move that conversation along, and that's a good thing. Expect the idea to come back in future legislative sessions, though.

It's early in the movement with the lottery industry. Only a handful of states have allowed online sales.

When I caught up with Frank Farricker, lottery interim president, he said introducing the concept to lawmakers this year may be part of a learning curve, suggesting the issue probably will come up again.

As I listened to Farricker explain the lottery's predicament, trying to appeal to younger players more comfortable conducting business online, I couldn't help but think of newspaper publishers, like The Day's, who also worry about the aging population of their customer base and what to do to appeal to new generations who are more digitally inclined.

Still, reading a newspaper on your phone is different than placing a bet.

Farricker makes the point that most retail transactions today can be made online. He adds that the state already allows off-track betting online.

This is all true, but also comparing apples and oranges. I don't worry too much about compulsive shoe buying or even betting on horse races, just because you can do it on your phone or home alone on the computer.

(The population of people who bet on horses may be declining faster than that of those who read from newsprint.)

I am not at all convinced that's not the case with simple random lottery tickets, even the ones for which you have to wait for a drawing to find out if you have won or lost.

I think there is a natural regulator on gaming sales, whether in a casino or at a convenience store counter, when they are conducted in person, without the ease of a phone app.

The language of the bill that was before the committee would have permitted online lottery sales only with a verified bank account debit card or gift card, but Farricker, in his testimony before the committee, said the lottery would like credit cards to be used, too.

A number of committee members appropriately pointed out the dangers of running up a credit card balance on lottery sales, a convenient and simple way to gamble money you don't have.

Farricker said the online sales of non-instant games probably would not impact the state's compact with the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans, although sales of instant games might be more problematic and challenged in that regard.

This is a warning sign that the future of gambling might be changing, and the way states permit it and tax it increasingly will be in play.

The uncertain future of online gambling and how much of it Connecticut will be able to participate in, if there is a will to do that, is just one of the uncertainties raised with the committee's consideration of gambling bills this session.

Various public safety committee members, in assessing the complex legal landscape of gambling in Connecticut, frequently said they wished they could get some professional guidance. Instead, they largely relied on testimony of experts hired by organizations with big stakes in the outcome of the debate.

Indeed, with the prospect of legalizing new nontribal casinos and conflicting legal opinions about what would violate the compact guaranteeing the state a part of tribal slot machine revenues, it would seem like a good time to pause and review.

How about a commission to study the future of gambling in Connecticut, one that would hear from all interested parties, including those worried about gambling addiction.

Give legislators what so many of them asked for: unbiased professional advice about the state's best way forward in the future of gambling.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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