A panel of lawmakers tried during a Monday hearing to get their arms around the extent to which problem gambling has increased in the months since Connecticut legalized sports betting and online gambling.
The legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee heard from the parties authorized in a law last year to expand their betting operations in Connecticut: the two tribal nations, the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans, which run casinos in the state as well as the Connecticut Lottery.
The informational hearing, held remotely Monday afternoon, was a sort of progress report on the first few months of vastly more convenient access to gambling in the state, which began part way through October. From then until the end of December, $2.5 billion was wagered in the state, according to the Consumer Protection Department.
Although representatives of each of the stakeholders were able to provide lawmakers with statistics on wagers and revenues, it was harder to pin down how much problem gambling had risen.
“Now that we’ve expanded digital gaming, there’s a lot more data about that,” said Rep. Maria Horn, a Salisbury Democrat who is co-chair of the committee.
Horn asked the tribes to reflect on how the data may be used to combat instances of problem gambling. Both of the tribal nations appeared at the virtual hearing with their sportsbook partners. Soon after Connecticut legalized sports betting, the two nations partnered with high-profile brands: FanDuel with the Mohegan tribe and DraftKings with the Mashantucket’s Foxwoods casino.
“Anything that we can do to make — you or whoever — to make use of that data to try to catch … problem gaming earlier in the arc of a problem,” Horn said.
Both tribes said they remained committed to reducing problem gambling but said it was too early in the rollout of the new platforms to have an understanding of what the data indicated about problem gambling. Ray Pineault, regional president of Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment, said it was a good time to begin studying the issue.
“It is early on and I’ll certainly continue to be involved in responsible gambling to make sure that we’re putting measures in place,” Pineault said. “None of us benefit from servicing people who have a problem with it. We all benefit from making sure that we’re addressing the problem.”
Greg Smith, president of the Connecticut Lottery Corporation, agreed. Smith said the lottery and its partner, Rush Street Interactive, have placed responsible gaming messages throughout their customer-facing products.
“None of us want the money of somebody who’s gambling in a problem or frantic situation,” Smith said. “We want the purpose to call for help.”
But while the three providers could not provide lawmakers with data to quantify a change in problem gambling under the new law, Diana Goode, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, did offer one metric: calls to the hotline run by her organization. She said they have quadrupled.
“For a couple hours we’ve been talking about how great this is because it’s all about the money. Income is phenomenal thanks to sports betting and online gambling,” Goode said. “But I just want to make sure that we understand that behind every one of those millions of dollars, is a person and a family that may or may not be able to afford to lose that money.”
At times during her testimony, Goode was critical of the tribes, who she said her group expected more funding from under last year’s law. The law requires both to dedicate $500,000 to curb problem gambling. However, they have directed some of those funds to other avenues like research and treatment.
The tribes told lawmakers they planned to continue funding the problem gambling council at levels consistent with past years, which they said had been voluntary.
“The lion’s share obviously is going to the council because that’s where we’ve been putting it and we’ll be consistent with that,” Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Chairman Rodney Butler said. But Butler said online gaming represented a new market with new behaviors. “We intend on working with the council, working with [the Mental Health and Addiction Services Department], working with the legislature in those new areas … and then direct the dollars appropriately.”
Goode told lawmakers she believed there were strong treatment options in Connecticut and more funding was needed to staff the hotline in an effort to serve as a bridge to those options.
The public safety panel is the committee of cognizance for gambling legislation in the General Assembly. Until last October, it counted among its members former Rep. Michael DiMassa, a West Haven Democrat who resigned after federal investigators accused him of embezzling COVID relief funds and spending more than $50,000 on casino chips.
Currently, the council operates with a budget of about $750,000 a year and Goode said it consisted of only three employees. During the hearing, Sen. Cathy Osten, co-chair of the committee, asked Goode what she would do with more funding.
In addition to more help for the hotline, Goode said she would hire an employee to offer training to bankers and business owners on how to spot problem gambler warning signs.
“Are you sure no one is embezzling from you? It’s happened in this state, we all know that,” Goode told lawmakers. “Let’s get these people into treatment before they do something stupid like embezzle.”