Hugh McQuaid Photo
Mary Drexler (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Advocates concerned with problem gambling crashed a Monday morning press conference, saying they felt “thrown under the bus” by the budget the House passed Sunday which would legalize Keno in Connecticut.

The two-year budget approved by the House early Sunday morning legalizes Keno, a bingo-type game prevalent in bars in most surrounding states. Under the bill, revenue from the game will be split with Connecticut’s two Native American tribes. The state is expecting is expected to raise $3.8 million in revenue from the game in 2014 and $27 million in 2015.

The budget is expected to be approved by the Senate Monday.

But while the state is moving towards legalizing new forms of gambling outside its two tribal-run casinos, a group of lawmakers scheduled a press conference Monday to start a conversation about expanding, video slot machines, another type of off-site gambling, to three locations throughout the state.

Sen. Andres Ayala, D-Bridgeport, called for the legislature to create a task force to study adding video slot machines to three off-track betting locations: Bridgeport’s Shoreline Star, the Sports Haven in New Haven, and the Bradley Tele-Theater in Windsor Locks.

Ayala sited the House’s adoption of a budget legalizing Keno. He said legalizing the game has been discussed at the state Capitol for years.

“Here we are today, implementing the use of Keno to be a stopgap and a revenue generator. So, this is what today is about… talking about the state of Connecticut being proactive, not being left behind,” he said.

But advocates saw the press conference as an opportunity to speak out against the late addition of Keno in the budget negotiations. Mary Drexler, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, stood when the press conference was opened up for media questions.

Drexler said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office told her the council would be alerted if the legislature began discussing gambling as a revenue generator late in the session. She said that did not happen and the addition of Keno “came out of nowhere.”

“I have to tell you, we feel thrown under the bus with this last minute add to the budget and then an implementation bill to follow. You just need to know our concerns are that nobody’s really looked at the social costs,” she said.

Drexler said she saw no additional funds in the budget for problem gambling treatment.

“We already have lottery at every street corner in the state of Connecticut and every gas station, every other mom and pop facility. We already have two lucrative casinos in the state,” she said.

The casinos and their growing competition in nearby states were part of the reason lawmakers called Monday’s press conference.

Jim Amann, a former state House speaker who now lobbies for Shoreline Star, said gambling operations in nearby states have been syphoning revenue away from the casinos and off-track betting facilities in Connecticut.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
Sen. Andres Ayala former Speaker Jim Amann (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

“All you have to do is go over our borders to understand… The New York market is killing our casinos,” he said.

Despite the timing of the press conference, lawmakers told Drexler their proposal was not linked to the addition of Keno in the budget.

“We’re confusing and conflating two different issues here,” Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, said. “This isn’t about Keno. This is about discrete potential expansion at three locations in the state… We do want to move forward as a state proactively.”

Drexler wasn’t the only advocate who used the press conference to question lawmakers. Deron Drumm, of Advocacy Unlimited, asked when the state would enact more prison diversionary programs to treat people accused of crimes who are problem gamblers. He said the state has created diversionary programs for people with drug and alcohol addictions.

“It’s a very serious addiction… Essentially we’re told drugs and alcohol are a lot more serious and that’s just not true. At what point are we going to have the same diversionary programs, treatment in prison, and reentry things? We’ve go to start looking at that,” he said.