Opponents of casino and sports betting bills press lawmakers for studies

Hartford — In Connecticut’s long-running debate over gambling expansion, theirs is the voice that tends to get drowned out: the opponents.

But late Tuesday morning, before any of the heavy-hitters spoke at a public hearing on sports-betting bills and other gaming-related proposals, a spokeswoman for mostly faith-based groups and organizations had the floor.

Having inveighed against casino proposals at a Public Safety and Security Committee hearing two weeks earlier, Michele Mudrick, a lobbyist for the Connecticut Conference, United Church of Christ and executive director of the Coalition Against Casino Expansion in Connecticut, was well known to the players.

“How much do you have in the way of an operating budget?” Rep. Tony Hwang, a Republican committee member from Fairfield, asked Mudrick.

“We have $800 in the bank ... not the thousands or the millions that MGM or the tribes have,” she replied.

Indeed, MGM Resorts International and the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes have spent millions of dollars lobbying lawmakers in recent years while pursuing competing casino proposals and, during the current legislative session, sports betting.

As a result, Mudrick said, “They’re getting all the press.”

She then launched into testimony in favor of bills calling for separate studies of online gaming and legalized gambling’s effects on the state’s residents. She noted that the last statewide study of gambling’s social impacts was released in 2009 and that the consulting firm that conducted it — the Spectrum Gaming Group — has indicated it may respond if the state seeks bids for a new study.

Spectrum has done consulting work for the casino-owning tribes, Mudrick said, and is affiliated with Spectrum Gaming Capital, which finances casinos.

“They are an integral part of the casino industry and do not qualify as an independent expert,” she said.

Mudrick said the groups she represents are opposed to a bill that would establish a gaming commission because they believe it would put too much power in the hands of a few people, denying the public a voice.

Also testifying Tuesday was Diana Goode, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, which supports the proposed gaming studies as well as increased funding for compulsive gambling treatment. She said about 35,000 adults in Connecticut meet the criteria for problem gambling disorder and that another 287,000 are at risk of developing a problem in their lifetime.

The council recommends that 1 to 3 percent of the revenue the state receives from any expansion of legalized gambling, including sports betting, online wagering and additional casinos, be dedicated to problem-gambling services. Such funds, Goode said, should be dedicated to the Chronic Gamblers Treatment and Rehabilitation Account and made available to state health agencies and private nonprofits.

Currently, the Connecticut Lottery Corp. annually contributes $2.3 million to the account.

Greg Smith, the lottery’s president and chief executive officer, testified in support of bills legalizing sports betting and the online sale of lottery “draw” games, including Powerball, Mega Millions, Keno, Lotto and daily numbers games.

“From the month we start selling online, it will be just a few years before the additional annual proceeds total $20 million or more,” Smith said. “Our five-year projections total over $50 million in new General Fund revenue.”

The sports betting bill heard Tuesday would authorize the tribes to offer sports wagering at Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun and for the lottery and Sportech Venues, the state’s off-track betting operator, to offer it, too.

It would all be contingent, however, on the outcome of negotiations between Gov. Ned Lamont and the tribes, who have maintained that their gaming agreements with the state grant them the exclusive right to provide sports betting in Connecticut.

Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat and vice chairwoman of the public safety committee, said she was unaware of the status of any talks between the governor and the tribes. She said she was not a supporter of the bills seeking gambling studies or a gaming commission.

The public safety committee is scheduled to meet March 19, at which time it could decide which bills will move forward.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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