Hugh McQuaid Photo
Sen. Andres Ayala, (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

A legislative task force appears poised to push for an expansion of video slot machines at three off-track betting facilities throughout the state.

The idea would be to allow video slots — currently only permitted at the state’s tribal casinos — at Shoreline Star Greyhound Park in Bridgeport, the Sports Haven in New Haven, and the Bradley Tele-Theater in Windsor Locks. Any change would need to be negotiated with the Mohegan and Pequot tribes, who have slot revenue sharing agreements with the state.

The task force consists of a small group of lawmakers representing districts near those three communities, and it completed its work Thursday. Although they made no formal recommendations during their last meeting, they will be looking to draft language before the legislative session begins next month.

Sen. Andres Ayala, a Bridgeport Democrat who co-chairs the task force, said the members of the group will continue to discuss the issue but it’s likely they will seek legislative approval to expand the slots.

“Maybe it’s time to go forward and propose legislation that would essentially do what we’re asking to do,” he said after the meeting.

Ayala and other supporters hope to “stem the tide” of Connecticut gamblers doing their gaming in nearby states like New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, where casinos are being built to compete with Connecticut’s.

During Thursday’s meeting, representatives of the Offices of Fiscal Analysis and Legislative Research projected that state revenue from the two casinos would continue to drop over the next few years. They predicted those revenues would plateau in Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018 at $212.2 million. That’s down from their peak year in FY 2007 when they brought in a combined $430 million to the state.

Several task force members stated that they are not hoping to create new gamblers, but rather they are only looking to retain so-called “convenience gamblers” who will spend their money at the closest facility, even if it means lining some other state’s coffers.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
Jim Amann (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Jim Amann, a former state House speaker who now lobbies for Shoreline Star, recommended the group consider allowing a total of 7,500 machines at the three locations. He said that could generate around $200 million in revenue. Amann said jobs also would be created in the process.

But any expansion of gambling is controversial and supporters of adding video slots unveiled their efforts less than a day after the legislature’s last-minute decision in 2013 to legalize keno and include it as part of the budget without a public hearing.

The move lead Mary Drexler, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, to interrupt a press conference on exploring video slots to say that her organization felt thrown under the bus by the legislature’s action.

Ayala said the timing was coincidental.

“We were all kind of taken aback but we went forward because we wanted to do our due diligence, we didn’t want to have a bill come out of left field and say ‘this is what’s happening.’ We wanted to go through a process where we got information, go through a process that was mindful of data and mindful of testimony from both sides,” he said.

Drexler thanked the task force Thursday for inviting her to speak at the meeting on video slots. Although Council on Problem Gambling did not outright oppose the expanded slots, Drexler said the issue needs more study and the state needs to spend more money on programs for problem gamblers.

She said electronic gambling like video slots are highly addictive and they have consequences beyond state revenue.

“The hope for fiscal benefits of legalized gambling are blinding to those who continue to believe that gambling revenue is a free lunch. The truth of this statement is evident in the history of minimal allocations to address the unintended but very real human cost of problem and underage gambling,” she said.

Supporters point out that gaming revenues have long made up a significant chunk of Connecticut’s budget.

“The fact of the matter is that for quite some time, the state of Connecticut has been using gaming revenues to balance its budget. It’s a fact,” Ayala said. “It’s here, it’s been here, it’s nothing new.”