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Gambling study bill draws support in public hearing

Both supporters and opponents of newly expanded gambling in Connecticut agree it bears study — right away.

But can “an examination of the types of gambling activity engaged in by the public and the desirability of expanding, maintaining or reducing the amount of legalized gambling permitted in this state,” as a proposed bill states, be completed by Jan. 1, 2023?

Michelle Seagull, commissioner of the state Department of Consumer Protection, the agency that would pursue the study, expressed some doubts Thursday during a public hearing conducted online by the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee.

Among numerous proposals up for discussion was Senate Bill 140, which calls for a study of the effect of legalized gambling.

In written testimony filed ahead of Thursday’s hearing, Seagull said the deadline specified in the bill’s language “might not be achievable.” She told committee members that meeting the deadline could result in a study that’s “less robust” than people want.

“By the time money is allocated, the scope is defined, you get bids and make a selection ... there could be only a couple of months left to do the study,” she said. “It won’t be as thorough as if they had six or seven months.”

The need for the study has crystallized in the wake of Connecticut’s legalization of sports betting and online casino gaming, both of which launched in the fall. The Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling reported it almost immediately experienced a significant increase in calls to its “helpline.”

Connecticut has not conducted a statewide study of gambling’s social effects since 2009, despite a mandate that such a study be done at least once every 10 years. Senate Bill 140 would renew the once-a-decade requirement.

The 2009 study, conducted by Spectrum Gaming Group, a New Jersey-based gaming consultant, cost $685,000. No funds for another study have been appropriated since.

Having submitted written testimony, Diana Goode, the council’s executive director, limited her online remarks, saying the introduction of new forms of gambling in Connecticut called for “a detailed study” of the prevalence of problem gambling. She urged that the firm chosen to conduct the study be “someone not in the gambling industry — a neutral party.”

In her submission, Goode stressed the importance of monitoring gambling’s impacts and gathering data to support “evidence-based mitigation efforts.”

“While the CCPG does not advocate for or against gambling, we feel that it is necessary to ensure that the state has a robust gambling safety net to help those individuals and families impacted by problem gambling and to reduce harms,” Goode wrote.

Sen. Tony Hwang, a Fairfield Republican and former public safety committee member who has long opposed gambling expansion, urged that the study be “objective and academic.” Citing the marked increase in gambling across the country in connection with the legalization of sports betting — such as during last month’s Super Bowl — Hwang called for funding for the study to be increased to $5 million.

“Since the passage of the expanded online gambling and sports betting, every mobile phone-carrying resident is now toting a mini-casino with them around the clock,” he said in written testimony. “I have heard stories from Connecticut residents who have the courage to open up about their gambling struggles, and they say that the emotional harm this addiction causes far outweighs the financial.”

Hwang said the public turned to “distractions” like online gambling and sports betting amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Christopher Davis, the Connecticut Lottery Corp.’s government relations and responsible gaming manager, testified that the lottery, which operates online and retail sports betting and expects to roll out the online sale of lottery tickets this fall, supports the gambling study bill. He said the lottery will provide whatever information and data researchers need.

Both the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, respective owners of Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, also have pledged to fully cooperate with a gambling study. The casinos operate on-site sportsbooks offering sports betting as well as online gaming and online sports betting platforms.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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