Senate Minority Leader John McKinney said Wednesday that online gambling is not coming to Connecticut, calling the governor’s understanding of a U.S. Justice Department decision regarding gambling “fundamentally flawed and just wrong.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has maintained that a decision by the department in December removed any ambiguity on an old law that had previously been interpreted to prohibit intrastate Internet gambling. In light of that decision, there will be Internet gambling in Connecticut regardless of what the state government does, Malloy said.
But McKinney said Malloy has been responsible for spreading misinformation about the decision, which he said does not change the fact that online gambling is illegal by Connecticut law. He drafted a seven page memo outlining his legal opposition to allowing it.
The decision, which was written to clarify the matter for states looking to allow the online purchase of lottery tickets, only effects states who have legalized it, he said.
Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy’s communication adviser, said McKinney’s press conference was just an excuse to attack the governor.
“Another day, another press conference by Sen. McKinney to criticize the governor. It’s pretty much all he does. The Justice Department decision makes clear that online gaming will eventually reach Connecticut,” he said in a statement.
However, McKinney read from a letter to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from Justice Department Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, which said the opinion “provides much needed clarity to those state governments that would like to permit wholly instate, non-sports, Internet gambling.”
“So the very department that issued the decision has recognized publicly that the decision does not allow for Internet gambling throughout the country. It is not inevitable,” McKinney said.
State statute makes businesses transferring gambling information a Class A misdemeanor. It is a Class B misdemeanor for an individual to engage in online gambling, he said. McKinney cited a CTNewsJunkie story in which Rep. Roland Lemar, D- New Haven, used his iPad to demonstrate that Connecticut residents can already access online gambling.
He was able to fill out the site’s application and enter his credit card number from the Legislative Office Building during a Finance Committee meeting. Lemar said the only thing he didn’t do is click start. McKinney said it’s a good thing he didn’t.
“Had that individual actually participated on that site, he would have committed a Class B misdemeanor under Connecticut law and I would assume that’s why he didn’t do it,” he said.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Lemar said it’s naive to “put our heads in the sand” and pretend as if thousands of Connecticut residents didn’t already participate in online gambling on a daily basis.
“We need to do something as a state to regulate it and put something in place to protect against problem gambling,” he said. “… We have to ensure that safeguards are in place to protect our citizens.”
McKinney suggested the state should ramp up its enforcement efforts of the laws that are on the books rather than look for ways to legalize it. Other states have more actively prosecuted individuals for online gambling, he said. Courts in New York are prosecuting 11 for running online gambling businesses, none of them New York residents, he said.
In states where laws that make online gambling illegal have been upheld, the gambling sites have stopped looking to do business there, McKinney said.
“I will be calling upon all law enforcement, from the state’s attorney’s office to the U.S. attorney’s office, to enforce the existing laws we have here in Connecticut and this session I will also be introducing legislation to increase the penalties that we have under existing law,” he said.
Currently, the Mohegans and Mashantucket Pequot Tribes have a compact with the state that gives them exclusive gambling rights in the state. Bruce “Two Dogs” Bozsum, chairman of the Mohegans, has said he has been talks with the governor’s office over a new compact, should the state legalize online gambling.
McKinney said giving the tribes the sole right to online gambling in the state would clearly violate the federal Commerce Clause. The only other option would be to give everyone the right to run online gambling sites, he said.
“That would be the wrong public policy, the wrong direction for this state to go down and if someone is trying to protect those two casinos, and more importantly the revenue it brings to the state of Connecticut, that would go a long way toward damaging it,” he said.
The legislature is powerless to stop competition from casinos in other states but it can protect its casinos by not making online gambling legal, he said. That way if people choose to gamble, their only option will be the casinos, he said.
McKinney said legalizing online gambling will also have a human cost. The state already spends $1.9 million on problem gamblers and gaming sites will increase the likelihood of children gambling, he said.
“We all know that despite restrictions on the Internet regarding the age of a person, their hardly full-proof. I have three kids of my own who log on to sites that ask you to verify your age and they get passed them all the time,” he said.
McKinney said he doesn’t think a bill to allow online gambling will be raised this session. He said he thought the debate was largely driven by the governor, who he believed would be backing off the issue.
Occhiogrosso said Malloy will be watching as the debate plays out.
“Gov. Malloy is concerned about protecting jobs and revenue that are tied to the gaming industry, and looks forward to having a public dialogue on the issue in the coming weeks and months,” he said.