Malloy: Online gambling 'unlikely'

Hartford - Internet gambling is pervasive yet illegal in Connecticut, and it could remain so for at least another year.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Thursday that he now believes it "highly unlikely" that legislation to legalize and regulate online gambling will emerge from the forthcoming legislative session. "Clearly there's not a lot of excitement around the issue," he said.

Earlier in the day, state Rep. Steve Dargan, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the General Assembly's Public Safety and Security Committee, which handles gambling issues in the state, said his committee wasn't interested in introducing such a bill this year.

The statements were enough for the legislature's leading online gambling opponent to declare a victory.

"The Malloy administration has reversed itself," state Sen. John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said in a statement. "I don't believe that putting a 24/7 electronic casino in every house in Connecticut so the government can profit from it is the way to solve our budget crisis." McKinney also has called for stepped-up enforcement and prosecution of illegal gambling sites.

But administration officials strongly dispute the notion that the governor was pushing for a gambling bill, as well as any claim that the state budget is in "crisis."

"There was no reversal because there was no proposal," Roy Occhiogrosso, the governor's senior adviser, said Thursday night. "What the governor said was we need to have this discussion and protect an industry with tens of thousands of Connecticut jobs."

Malloy began speaking publicly about Internet gambling in the wake of a U.S. Department of Justice decision made in December that has been widely interpreted to have opened the door for states to begin offering Internet gambling within their own borders. And some officials speculate that it may place pressure on Congress to allow such gambling at an interstate level.

"The Internet gambling genie may be out of the bottle," state Rep. Steve Mikutel, D-Griswold, said Thursday. "If it is, the question becomes, 'How do we regulate it?'"

It is currently illegal in Connecticut to gamble over the Internet. But state officials acknowledge that many people - including adolescents - are already doing it via websites operated offshore. Knowingly or not, these individuals are committing class B misdemeanors.

The public safety panel held a forum Thursday morning to gather information about the legal, economic and social issues related to Internet gambling.

Tribal officials representing both of the state's casinos told lawmakers they support some form of legalized online gambling in Connecticut - but only if the two tribes are the sole operators.

Chuck Bunnell, chief of staff for external affairs for the Mohegan Tribe, said the tribe would view any attempt by the state to let non-tribe entities run gambling websites as a violation of the tribal compacts.

Under the compacts, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods contribute 25 percent of their slot machine earnings to the state. Bringing in third-party operators would void that agreement, the tribal representatives said.

Bunnell said the Mohegan Tribe is only interested in offering Internet poker so as not to erode its casino business. If more game options went online, "we think it would affect the jobs at Mohegan Sun," he said. The casino employs roughly 9,000 workers.

However, Foxwoods Development Co. officials said they want to put a full suite of gambling options online to bolster their casino's brand as it faces growing competition from bricks-and-mortar gambling sites in nearby states such as Massachusetts and New York. Foxwoods employs just under 10,000 workers.

"We believe that the online player is a different animal; they're not necessarily the same people who come to the casino," said Joseph Colebut, the development company's chairman.

Making a case for legalization, Foxwoods officials said that hundreds of foreign-based websites are targeting state residents to gamble online. The state has an opportunity to capture this lost revenue through legalization and regulation, they said.

"The profits and jobs are all currently going offshore with no benefit to the state of Connecticut," said Anshu Kalhan, Foxwoods' director of development. If Connecticut were to legalize only Internet poker, a great deal of online gambling money would continue flowing elsewhere, he said.

The Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling has raised concerns that easy access to online gambling could exacerbate addiction problems in the state.

Mohegan and Foxwoods representatives said they expect it to be easier to spot and address problem gambling among online users because websites can track and control the amount a person loses.

j.reindl@theday

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