HARTFORD – A coalition of 12 interfaith and community organizations has joined to oppose the expansion of casino gambling in Connecticut. At a press conference at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford on Tuesday, the Coalition Against Casino Expansion in Connecticut, organized by Michele Mudrick, Legislative Advocate for the Connecticut Conference, UCC, voiced concerns about the proposal of an off-reservation commercial casino. Connecticut's Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes have asked the state's legislature to allow them to jointly open a $200-300 million “convenience” casino in the Hartford area.
State Senator Tony Hwang (District 28) spoke in support of the coalition saying he is concerned that "we are opening up Pandora's box" and said by allowing the tribes to create an off-reservation casino "we are, in essence, allowing a duopoly to control gambling in our state." Sen. Hwang also stated the he believes any proposed casino expansion should involve the voice of the community and said it "raised an alarm" for him that a proposal for a site in East Windsor may not involve a public referendum.
"Any potential expansion outside of tribal land would have to have the community's engagement," said the Senator.
Mudrick introduced the Coalition's 12 member organizations, consisting of a "broad range of liberal and conservative viewpoints." She said the purpose of this unique alliance was "to educate the public and state officials about the economic and social costs of more legalized gambling and to oppose efforts to open a commercial casino in the Hartford area."
The first of several speakers was Former Congressmen Robert Steele. Steele argued that the economic study commissioned by the tribes to support a new casino did not address the economic and social costs because the study claimed they are impossible to calculate. Steele referenced Baylor University Economist Earl Grinols who has stated that this is false and that "the social costs of gambling are “hidden” only to the extent that they are misunderstood or overlooked." According to a white paper written by Grinols in 2011, "one additional pathological gambler costs society $9,393 annually."
Steele also stated that legalizing off-reservation casino gambling, would be "only the first step in broad expansion of legalized gambling in Connecticut." Steele reiterated the Coalitions call for a state-wide referendum on casino expansion.
Peter Wolfgang, Executive Director of Family Institute of Connecticut, said he was proud to join the coalition because "problem gamblers hurt their families as well as themselves." Wolfgang made an effort to point out that his organization has never joined an alliance before with what he called the "religious left" and stated that Family Institute has historically opposed the views of the the more liberal groups represented. But he continued by saying, "whatever our other disagreements, we are all united around this common cause. That's how important this is."
Also among the interfaith leaders, representing the Muslim community, was Imam Sami Abdul Aziz from Common Ground Services, an Islamic Consulting Firm. Imam Aziz shared a concern for the high suicide rate of addicted gamblers stating it is estimated that 1 in 5 addicted gamblers attempt suicide, "a rate higher than any other addiction."
Three speakers told personal stories of their own gambling addictions. Joanie Masot shared how she has been in recovery for 14 years and how difficult every day is to stay true to this recovery. Even when trying to testify against gambling bills, Masot says the first thing one does is draw a number from a "beautiful shoebox marked 'lottery' to get your place in line." Masot asked a friend to draw the number during one hearing because she could feel the compulsion of her addiction calling her to try drawing the "winning" number.
Adam Osmond shared how he lost a comfortable lifestyle, a good job, his wife and children because of gambling. After spending 5 years homeless and unemployed, Osmond is recovering and has become an avid runner. He shared that he was recently disappointed that he had to refrain from running in a marathon because there was a lottery used to select the runners.
The Rev. Denise Terry, pastor of East Granby Congregational Church, shared a story describing the progression of someone becoming addicted to slot machine gambling and revealed that this story was her own. She called it "immoral and unethical" for the state government to look for revenue by "taking advantage of its residents and preying on their vulnerabilities."
During questions at the end of the press conference, Mark Davis, Chief Political Correspondent for News 8, asked three direct questions. First he asked how the coalition would overcome the fact that there is no "apparatus" for a state-wide referendum except in the case of a constitutional amendment. He asked how the coalition would respond to casino employees who have been told they will lose good jobs if casino expansion does not happen. Finally, he asked what the coalition would say to someone who pointed out that it was religious organizations who are responsible for casino gambling by supporting past legislation that approved casino nights for charitable purposes.
Sen. Hwang answered all three questions. He emphasized that the legislature should explore the discussion of a state-wide referendum – a discussion he said he welcomed – and that the municipalities impacted by a proposal should have a referendum – a process that does not require any changes by the state. In response to jobs, Sen. Hwang emphasized that there are more productive sectors of industry and cautioned against investing in an industry that may have reached its saturation point.
In response to the last questions, Sen. Hwang agreed that religious organizations did take part in the path which lead to the casino pacts, but that more than 20 years ago no one knew the consequences of this agreement. The Senator said that history has shown how grave the impacts can be on communities and individuals, as illustrated by the speakers present at the conference.
"We are in the here and now," said the Senator, and the interfaith communities who have witnessed the aftermath of gambling in the state would say "this is not the way to go."
Legislative Advocate Michele Mudrick said after the press conference that the fight against casino expansion will be "a tough win" and asked that individuals contact their state legislators. The CT Conference has several resolutions opposing gambling including a 1994 resolution opposing casino gambling in the state. She also asked that anyone who has seen press regarding casino expansion or if they have questions about the issue to contact her at micheleM@ctucc.org.