This year marks the 25th anniversary of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which led to an explosion of Indian and commercial casinos across the country.
In 1988, only two states allowed casinos, Nevada and New Jersey. Today 39 states have casinos, and we now have nearly 1,000 of them, almost evenly divided between Indian and commercial.
Nowhere did casino gambling get off to a more spectacular start than in Connecticut. Foxwoods, owned by the Mashantucket Pequots, opened in 1992 and Mohegan Sun, owned by the Mohegans, opened in 1996.
They were the first casinos in the Northeast outside Atlantic City and quickly grew into the two largest casinos in the world — drawing over half their combined customers from outside Connecticut, creating 20,000 casino jobs, and sending hundreds of millions of dollars a year in shared slot revenue to the state.
They also have a serious downside, however. They have created a pervasive gambling culture in southeastern
Connecticut; they’ve skewed the region’s economy heavily toward low-paying service jobs; and they were followed by a sharp spike in the number of state residents seeking treatment for gambling addiction. According to a 2009 state-sponsored study, there had been a 400 percent increase in arrests for embezzlement since Foxwoods opened, a rate of increase 10 times the national average.
The numbers prompted a columnist for The Day in New London to describe southeastern Connecticut as the embezzlement capital of America.
As far back as 1997, Congress was so concerned about the spread of casino gambling that it set up a national commission to study the issue.
That commission subsequently recommended a moratorium on new casinos until the government could get a better
handle on their social and economic costs. Additionally, the commission recommended banning credit card and ATM use at casinos, prohibiting aggressive casino advertising and restricting political contributions by the gambling industry to guard against political corruption.
None of these recommendations were ever implemented, and casinos have continued to multiply.
Now a new study published by The Council on Casinos, an independent, nonpartisan group of scholars assembled by the Institute for American Values, contains a serious new warning about casino expansion.
“From time to time,” the council states “a new institution takes root across the country, and in doing so changes the nation, changes the physical landscape of communities, impacts the patterns and habits of daily life, affects citizens’ and communities’ economic outcomes, and even alters relationships” among its citizens.
That is precisely what is happening with casinos, according to the study, with states’ hunger for casino revenue creating a host of problems, from fostering gambling addiction to draining wealth from lower-income people and contributing to economic inequality in America.
Among the council’s key findings:
Once a largely occasional upper-class activity, casino gambling has moved from the margins to the mainstream of American life. The new American casino is primarily filled with highly addictive slot machines. It caters overwhelmingly to middle- and low-rollers who live within an hour away, return frequently, and play the slots.
Modern slot machines have transformed American gambling. They have become sophisticated computers, engineered to create fast, continuous, and repeat betting designed to get players to gamble longer and lose more over time.
Problem gamblers (those with moderate and severe gambling addiction) account for 40-60 percent of slot machine revenues.
Living close to a casino increases the chance of becoming a problem gambler.
Casinos extract wealth from communities, weaken nearby businesses, and reduce voluntarism, civic participation, family stability and other forms of social capital.
Casinos are the creation of government and its public policies, and constitute a regressive tax that particularly impacts low-wage earners, retirees, minorities and women.
As a result of the weak economy and growing competition from casinos in other states, slot revenue at Connecticut’s casinos is down over 30 percent from its peak (with the state’s share dropping from $430 million to under $300 million) and is projected to continue to decline as Massachusetts and other states open casinos. With Connecticut’s casino monopoly gone and mounting evidence of gambling’s negative impact, one would hope the state would focus on finding non-gambling solutions to compensate for its shrinking slot receipts.
Instead, our state government appears determined to double down and promote more gambling. It recently increased the casinos’ free-play allowance so they can beef up promotions and has begun to put the state in the electronic casino gambling business.
In the last days of the legislative session, Gov. Dannel Malloy and the majority leadership pushed through a gambling game called keno (essentially electronic bingo) for restaurants, bars, taverns and convenience stores.
They claim it will produce $31 million in its first two years, but keno was never discussed by the appropriate committees, was not included in the legislative budget, and was never proposed at any time until the final budget document was made public on the day of the vote. Mary Drexler, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, has called the decision to legalize keno “astounding,” given its addictiveness and the problems it will create.
Then the next day a group of legislators proposed introducing video slots in Connecticut, beginning at the old dog track in Bridgeport, Sports Haven in New Haven, and the Bradley Teletheater in Windsor Locks.
Still more troubling, Nevada and New Jersey recently legalized in-state online gambling for their casinos, and Governor Malloy has indicated he favors doing the same for Connecticut’s casinos. The casinos want it in order to attract younger customers, and experts view it as especially addictive because of the fast pace of the games, their 24-hour availability and the instant gratification aspect of the action.
It is clearly time for an open and vigorous public debate on the future of state-sponsored gambling in Connecticut, including the extent to which we should try to prop up the casinos, whether to implement or kill keno, what to do about video slots, and whether it is in the state’s interest to legalize Internet casino gambling.
Robert Steele, of Essex, represented eastern Connecticut in Congress from 1970 to 1974 and is the author of “The Curse: Big-Time Gambling’s Seduction of a Small New England Town” (Levellers Press). State Rep. Tony Hwang is in his third term in the Connecticut General Assembly and represents the 134th District, which includes portions of Fairfield and Trumbull.