As the Finance Committee was hearing expert testimony on the pitfalls of online gambling, one of the committee’s younger members demonstrated on his iPad one reason for the state to allow it—it’s already happening.

Sitting in a hearing room in the Legislative Office Building, Rep. Roland Lemar, D- New Haven, pulled up the leading online gambling websites.

“I was able to go through the entire application process, provide my credit card number, do everything except click start,” he said Monday.

The sites were careful to point out for him that no American has ever been prosecuted for online gambling and that all the legal risks associated wouldn’t be on him if he chose to gamble, he said.

Lemar demonstrated what Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has been saying for weeks: online gambling is coming to Connecticut whether we like it or not. The U.S. Justice Department cleared the way for states to get involved with Internet gaming last month when it clarified a law that had previously been interpreted to prohibit intrastate Internet gambling.

“The playing field with respect to gaming is about to change,” Malloy said Monday following the Bond Commission meeting. “And we have to consider those changes and be aware of them.”

However, Marvin Steinberg, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, said that when a state passes a law legalizing it, it promotes a form of gambling.

“It increases the number of people who gamble and a certain percentage of them will have a problem,” he said.

Due to the private and individual nature of online gambling, it can be more dangerous than other forms of gambling, he said. Where someone in a casino may interact with other people and pick up on social cues suggesting it’s time to stop, someone on gambling on their laptop has none of that input, he said.

Steinberg’s assistant director Mary Drexler said online gambling can be especially dangerous for minors who have grown up playing video games where they are comfortable taking risks. The younger a person develops a gambling habit, the more likely they are to have a serious problem later on in life, she said.

Sen. Gary LeBeau, D- East Hartford, asked how parents in Connecticut can prevent their kids from going online to gamble when states like Massachusetts and New Jersey seemed poised to get into the game themselves.

“You’ve already acknowledged that children are already online gambling, I know my kids have. I’ve got three kids in their twenties, I know one of them has. I know that they play poker online, they can go offshore, they know how to do that,” he said.

If that’s already happening, wouldn’t it be better for Connecticut to offer its own version of gaming with controls and protections to prevent children from playing, he asked. Other states may not have controls, he said.

Malloy agreed, saying if the state choose to pass online gaming legislation, it could devote additional funds to helping people with gambling problems.

“Either way whether we make changes in Connecticut or not, the number of increased opportunities for gaming in our region, including online gaming even if we didn’t do it—and I’m not saying we’re going to,—but even if we didn’t do it is going to cause that problem to probably rise to another level,” Malloy said. “That’s why if we do anything we need to increase the amount of money available to address that problem to the greatest extent we can.”

Currently the state spends about $1.9 million on problem gambling, which doesn’t represent 1 percent of the revenues the state takes in for gaming.

“If we were to go any further with respect to gaming I think an appropriate factor would be 1 percent of any increase,” Malloy said.

Steinberg agreed that if the state decides to generate additional revenue through gambling, more money should be spent on problem gamblers based on a percentage of that revenue.

He asked that lawmakers drafting any bill that would legalize to keep a few things in mind. One thing they should ask themselves is whether residents actually want to legalize online gambling. Steinberg said the state should sponsor a review of scientific literature on the impact of online gambling.

Any bill that legalizes online gambling should include provisions that have proven to reduce underage gambling in other places like Canada and Australia.

Steinberg did not tell the committee his organization was there to oppose a bill to legalize online gambling.

“We’re not here to say don’t do online gambling. We’re not here to say don’t do casinos. We’re here to say, if you’re going to do it, know what you’re doing, know what the downside is, research it, provide funds for prevention and treatment and research, and got on with it,” he said.

Rep. Sean Williams, R- Watertown, questioned why, given all the negative potential of online gambling, he wouldn’t oppose its legalization.

“Understand there are a lot of people on this committee and throughout the legislature who are, to say the least, very skeptical about online gambling, a lot of people who are poised to oppose it,” Williams said. 

Steinberg said that as an affiliate member of the National Council of Problem Gambling, they need to be neutral on the issue. Their job is to provide enough information to cause people to pause and think about it, he said. However, Steinberg, who will leave his position at the group later this week, said his personal feelings on the matter are different.

“As a citizen, I’m not in favor of this much dependency on gambling but it’s an easy way for government to get some funds. As opposed to waiting a long time to grow the business sector,” he said. “… It is on shaky grounds to continue to depend on gambling funds because eventually it’s going to be tapped out.”