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Conn. considers effects of Mass. casinos

Downplays benefits while strategizing

By Kyle Cheney
State House News Service / September 2, 2011

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With Massachusetts lawmakers poised to bring three casinos to Massachusetts, a push that appears to have gathered momentum since a monumental collapse last year, lawmakers from Connecticut proffered a warning: Don’t get your hopes up.

“If Massachusetts does move forward and we stay in a prolonged economic downturn, they may find that the rewards they reap are less than they expect,’’ Don Williams, Connecticut’s Senate president, said. “Certainly in tougher times people cut way back on discretionary spending. Even now, without the competition, we’re seeing lower revenues are coming from the casinos in Connecticut.’’

The Nutmeg State is home to two casinos that stand to suffer a major blow from Bay State competition. Connecticut, according to Williams, derives between $300 million and $400 million a year in tax revenue from its casinos, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, both run by Native American tribes. The revenue supports the state’s $18 billion operating budget and also funds aid to municipalities.

“It’s not a stable source of revenue that states can depend on,’’ said Williams, a Democrat. “What Massachusetts may find is there are some additional folks who decide to gamble because there is a facility that’s close to where they live. For the most part, it probably is dividing up an already shrinking pie of gambling constituents.’’

Governor Deval Patrick and legislative leaders in Massachusetts lined up last month behind a plan to sanction three casinos and a slot parlor. For years, they have pointed to studies showing that Bay State residents spend close to $1 billion a year at out-of-state gambling facilities - with the bulk spent at the Connecticut casinos - bringing home associated ills but none of the economic benefit. Massachusetts residents travel to facilities in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maine, proponents say, often pointing to the number of Massachusetts license plates visible on any given day at those facilities to emphasize the point.

Opponents of expanded gambling have ripped the prospect of lining up behind an industry that they say thrives on and causes addiction in order to capture funds and bolster the state’s economy.

In addition, critics argue that a Massachusetts foray into gambling could prompt a race among states seeking to squeeze as many gambling dollars as they can out of an already-saturated market, dampening potential economic gains.

In fact, Connecticut lawmakers they would probably respond, if it appears Massachusetts gambling efforts would cut deeply into their revenue stream.

“I’m not a big fan of gambling; but it does produce revenues for the education budget. If it looks like [Massachusetts] is essentially going to drain 10 to 12 percent of the gamers from the Connecticut economy, I think that would rise to the level for a government response,’’ said state Senator L. Scott Frantz, ranking Republican senator on the Legislature’s Commerce Committee.

Fred Camillo, the ranking House Republican on Connecticut’s Commerce committee, agreed that they should respond if Massachusetts moves forward with a plan that could drain the Nutmeg State’s gambling clientele.

Officials have noted that any Connecticut response may be limited by compacts in place with the local tribes, but potential responses could include offering additional gambling opportunities near the Massachusetts border and offering gamblers greater odds or other enticements, such as hotel or restaurant deals.

Connecticut lawmakers’ worry over Massachusetts gambling facilities was compounded by a report issued last week by Moody’s Investors Service that found that “Connecticut casinos face the biggest risk’’ from the prospect of expanded gambling in Massachusetts.