The Public Safety and Security Committee will hear public testimony Thursday on a proposal to allow slot machines at existing off-track betting facilities located within five miles of I-91 and I-95.
The bill permits video slots — currently only allowed at the state’s tribal casinos — to be operated at certain off-track betting facilities. If the bill were to pass, the change would need to be negotiated with the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes, who have slot revenue-sharing agreements with the state.
Rep. Peggy Sayers, a Windsor Locks Democrat who authored the bill, said its goal is to offer Connecticut gamblers a convenient alternative to crossing state lines into nearby New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, where casinos are being built to compete with Connecticut’s.
Sayers said her intent was to permit the slots at Shoreline Star Greyhound Park in Bridgeport, the Sports Haven in New Haven, and the Bradley Tele-Theater in Windsor Locks, but she acknowledged it may impact more of the state’s 15 licensed pari-mutuel facilities.
In a Tuesday phone interview, Sayers pointed to a referendum vote in Massachusetts to allow a casino in Springfield.
“I just feel like we need to have a discussion about gaming. In Windsor Locks, we have the Tele-Theater and right now we have 1,500 hotel rooms. When they build the casino in Springfield, they will be sending bus loads or van loads of people up to Springfield,” she said.
After Massachusetts voters in November rejected a referendum by gambling opponents to stop casino projects, Sayers made news with a press release calling upon the legislature to work with the Native American tribes that run Connecticut’s two casinos to identify additional gaming sites in the state.
Although Mohegan Tribal Council Chairman Kevin Brown expressed interest in the idea, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told reporters he did not see support in Connecticut for expanded gambling.
“I don’t think there’s a consensus in Connecticut that people want a lot more gaming, vis-a-vis keno, which is played in every state around us but isn’t played in Connecticut,” Malloy said. Policymakers approved keno to generate revenue in the 2013 budget. However, the move was unpopular with voters and the game was never implemented. Lawmakers reversed course and repealed keno in 2014.
But with gaming revenue from the two Connecticut casinos on the decline and the resorts employing fewer people, Sayers said it was important to start a dialogue about keeping the state competitive.
“There are some people that will think [the video slots bill] opens the door” to more ambitious gaming proposals, Sayers said, “but I really think we need to have a discussion. I’m not saying we should build another casino, but we should have a discussion about what the most helpful thing to do is.”
Cheryl Chandler, interim executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, said her organization takes a neutral stance on legalized gambling bills, but will offer testimony during Thursday’s public hearing asking lawmakers to amend the bill to provide more funding for gambling prevention and treatment efforts.
“As opportunities increase, we expect that problem and underage gambling would increase as well. We’re always concerned about that and want to make sure there is adequate funding for that anticipated rise,” she said.
Chandler said video slots are considered one of the most addictive forms of gambling. She said 46 percent of people who contacted the group’s helpline in 2013 identified slot machines as their number one gambling option.