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Massachusetts has opportunity to tackle problems of gambling addiction in Patrick proposal, symposium told

Submitted by Bill Densmore on Wed, 2008-03-12 09:40.

HAMDEN, Conn. – Massachusetts has an opportunity to show the way in handling the problems which result from legalized casino gambling, but may have difficulting mustering the political will to do so longterm, two experts told a panel Tuesday night. 

Public officials, journalists, researchers and an industry executive gathered to assess the impact and reporting of casino gambling on New England -- the experience in Connecticut and the promise in Massachusetts. They were part of a two-hour public symposium organized by the New England News Forum, hosted by Quinnipiac University and co-sponsored by the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling. 

(Photos: Volberg, left, Steinberg, right -- MORE PHOTOS) . . .  BLOG POST . . .  VIDEO

Dr. Rachel A. Volberg, an expert on the social effects of gambling from Northampton, Mass., and Marvin Steinberg, founder/director of the Connecticut problem-gambling council, noted that Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick is proposing a initial estimated $50-million-a-year trust fund from his three-casino plan to be dedicated to public education and treatment for problem gamblers.  The figure -- an estimated 2.5% of casino revenues, would rank Massachusetts way above Connecticut and most governments except some of the Canadian provinces, in dedicating gambling receipts to fighting addiction. 

But Volberg and Steinberg  expressed concern that the $50-million-a-year commitment would be eroded over time. 

It's difficult to find research on gambling's social effects that wasn't conducted by a person or group with an opinion about it's public policy and moral implications, said Dan O'Connell, Massachusetts secretary of economic development, and much of the research is industry-sponsored.  "We tried to find academic work and individuals who had studied these issues outside these two sources, and then met with a number of the individuals in the industry." O'Connell is the point person for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick's proposal to authorize up to three casinos in Massachusetts.

 A legislative hearing and vote on the Patrick proposal was scheduled for March 18 on Beacon Hill.

"I don't think we're doing an adequate job right now in [Connecticut]" to address problem gambling, echoed Connecticut Atty. Gen. Richard Blumenthal during his comments at the symposium.  He said when the state authorized two Native American-owned casinos two decades ago the state didn't recognize problem gambling as a looming public-health issue.   He said the big worry 17 years ago was that organized crime would arrive in the state along with casino gambling.  Actually, he said, that hasn't happened. He said close cooperation among the tribal operators and state authorities "has meant a relatively crime-free environment."  And he said the jobs created by the casinos in southeastern Connecticut have been critical to mitigating the loss of thousands of defense-related jobs at the Electric Boat submarine shipyard in Groton. 

 Overall, Blumenthal painted a generally rosey portrait of Connecticut's experience with casino gambling.  He said Connecticut has to worry about competition from casinos in New York or Massachusetts, "where the rules may not be as well defined and where the relationships may not be of the same kind that we have with the Mohegans and the Mashantucket Pequots."

Bruce MacDonald, a spokesman for the Foxwoods casino, noted the $300 million annual payroll of the state's two tribal casino operators, and said 50,000 school children a year pass through the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. He said Foxwoods is now seeking to hire 6,000 people to staff  a new resort it's opening in May in partnershi with the MGM Grand organization.

Steinberg noted his non-profit, private group has received voluntary donations of more than $3 million from the two Connecticut casino owners in recent years (his group peldged $500 to the NENF as a sponsorship of Tuesday's symposium). Overall, some $10 million to $15 million has been spent on problem gambling as an issue since 1972 in Connecticut, said Steinberg, compared with about $10.2 billion in state receipts alone from gambling during the same period.

Lumsden, the Hartford editor, said newspapers were covering casino gaming as well as they could under the circumstances, but that the burden shouldn't theirs alone. (The Norwich and New London papers have full-time reporters covering gaming issues, and The Courant has long covered them but its gaming reporter also covers energy issues.) She said the state should be monitoring bankruptcies, embezzlements and other social costs in southern Connecticut. She questioned why Connecticut has delayed its study of gaming's social costs for more than a decade. "I don't know why we are so afraid to look at this," she said.  She said that Massachusetts' proposed trust fund for mitigating social ills was a unique opportunity to do what Connecticut has not done.
"I think it should be a duty of the goverment to monitor the impacts of gambling," said Volberg.  "I have not had a single call from the state of Massachusetts."

Volberg said various studies have show that about 2% to 3% of the general population suffers from clinical gambling addiction, and the figures are about twice than when including less serious but observable effects.  But during the symposium, and in comments before it began, Volberg said her firm Gemini Research, had withdrawn from bidding on a $700,000 Connecticut study of problem gambling, just announced, because the sum was inadequate to do a comprehensive job.  Five previous smaller studies in Connecticut each used different methodologies which meant that trends could not be tracked over time, she said.

Indian Country Today reporter Gale Corey Toensing described her adjustment from relatively uninformed reporting on Native American issues while  free-lance writer for the Waterbury, Conn., daily to careful study of things such as the "doctrine of discovery," which she said is the legal basis of federal Indian law. 

She recounted the state of Connecticut's opposition to federal recognition of two additional tribes and said the state might have been concerned it would breach its agreements with the existing casinos and lose $400 million in annual slots revenue now vital to the state budget.   Both MacDonald, the tribal spokesman, and Blumenthal, the attorney general, flatly denied any collusion between the state and the casino-operating tribes to block additional tribal operators.


EARLIER STORY (includes bios of speakers)

RESOURCE: 1999 National Gambling Impact Study Commission

"The Big Gamble: The Costs, Benefits and Coverage of Casinos," is the first event in Connecticut organized by the New England News Forum. The forum, based at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, received a two-year grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation last year to experiment with new forms of citizen-media accountability and dialog.

(updated at 4:40 p.m., March 12, 2008 re-edit reporting of Lumsden comments)

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