HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The state's two federally recognized Indian tribes warned legislators on Thursday that unregulated online gambling is already happening in Connecticut, despite the state not having legalized Internet wagering.
"The profits and jobs are all currently going off-shore with no benefit to the state of Connecticut," Anshu Z. Kalhan, director of development at Foxwoods Development Co., told members of the General Assembly's Public Safety and Security Committee, which held a forum on online gambling.
Representatives from both the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Tribes said if the state ultimately decides to pass legislation legalizing online gambling, their two successful casinos in southeastern Connecticut could run a regulated system that would provide protections for the gamblers and ensure that underage players cannot participate. But if the state allows another vendor to offer online gambling, the two tribes said they would consider that a violation of their current compact with the state, which gives them exclusive rights to offer casino gambling in return for providing the state 25 percent of their slot machine revenues.
This year, the two tribes made a total of $359 million in payments to the state.
"The state should carefully consider the impact any legislation might have on its existing relationships with the tribes," said Robert Clark, special counsel to the state attorney general.
State Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, co-chairman of the public safety committee, said there are no plans yet to offer a bill this session legalizing online gambling in Connecticut. He said leaders of the committee believe they "are in the infancy stage" of understanding the issue and all its ramifications.
Dargan said he also spoke to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's office and was told the executive branch also has no plans to introduce legislation this session, which opens next week.
Thursday's informational hearing comes after the U.S. Justice Department issued an opinion in December stating that in-state Internet gambling does not violate federal law, prompting states to look at the possibility of legalizing online gambling.
Kalhan said the Mashantuckets have researched the issue and determined there are 855 websites that will take online bets from Connecticut players, even though the state has not legalized the practice. He said the sites rarely enforce age verification. He said nearly anyone can get onto a website, deposit money into an account if they have a credit card and begin gambling.
"Online gaming, is not a new venture here in Connecticut. Online gaming is available today. It's just illegal and unregulated," said Charles Bunnell, the Mohegans' chief of staff for external and governmental affairs, adding how it's being operated in foreign countries, without any revenue sharing with the state or any protections.
He said Connecticut is in a unique position, given it already has a formal relationship with the Mohegans and Mashantuckets.
"We are ready to enter this market, whether on an intra-state basis or on an inter-state basis, and ensure that if legal, it is implemented with the same professionalism, public safety awareness and recognition of the regulatory concerns that have been the foundation of the Mohegan Sun operation since its opening," Bunnell said.
He said Connecticut needs to decide whether to regulate online gambling within its borders or wait for the federal government to regulate it. If the state decides to pass legislation allowing the two tribes to offer online gambling, Bunnell said each tribe or the two together would likely create a website where gamblers could visit and download onto their home personal computer. There's also the possibility that online participants could pick up software at Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun, showing identification that verifies their age and address.
Carlos Reinoso Jr., of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, asked that his group be part of any future discussions the state might have it if decides to craft legislation allowing online gambling. He contends that Internet wagering could be problematic for people with an addiction to gambling, considering it would be a solitary activity and could be very addictive if there are no outside distractions.
"For people with a problem, the temptation is always there," he said.
Bunnell said the Mohegans would be interested in offering online poker or a limited number of games on the Internet. He said the tribe, which has invested billions of dollars in its Uncasville location to create an attraction that offers gambling, restaurants, entertainment and a hotel, is concerned there would be erosion of visitors if every game possible was offered on the Internet.
Zalhan said the Mashantuckets don't share that concern. He said online poker makes up only about 15 to 20 percent of online gambling.
"Our tribe would appreciate the ability to take our full suite of products into the online world," he said. "I think the key is to have proper regulation and enforcement behind it."