Keno — A shortsighted idea from smart people

Of all the last-minute pieces of legislation haggled over in secret, the move to legalize keno is among the most shortsighted.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, State Senate President Don Williams and Speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey all agreed to tuck keno in the budget just before the legislative session ended in June to balance the books. There was no hearing or public discussion of the considerable downside.

Keno is a fast-paced game that involves a different set of numbers flashing on TV screens every five minutes for almost continual betting. Plans are to put the game in restaurants and bars across the state, giving us as many as 1,000 mini-casinos instead of two big ones. Connecticut’s keno will be similar to New York’s, which began with 138 drawings a day. In fact, one of the excuses for legalizing the game here is that our neighboring states of Massachusetts and New York have keno – so why not us?

Because Connecticut deserves better, that’s why. Surely keno is not the only way to find $40 million a year in a budget of more than $18 billion.  

I don’t share the public’s frequent disparagement of those in public office; they have tough jobs. But in making this decision, the governor and legislative leaders weren’t just adding another form of lottery.

This is the first time that our state government has legalized near-constant daily betting on games of chance in multiple establishments that sell alcohol – a profoundly predatory move. The game will also expose more children to gambling, since the law will legalize keno in restaurants – sending a message that gambling is a state-sanctioned, family activity.

Go figure: Our state government has yanked soda out of public schools to keep kids sugar-free, and cigarettes here are among the most expensive in the country to keep minors from smoking. But exposing children to gambling is apparently OK.

When I asked about the governor’s support of keno, Gov. Malloy’s spokesman, Andrew Doba, said the idea for keno came from the legislature. “The governor did not have anything to do with this,” he said. Well, since Malloy’s Democratic Party controls both the House and Senate, keno never would have happened if he didn’t agree. He certainly didn’t object. 

Both Sharkey and Williams said the choice of keno was an alternative to raising taxes or cutting aid to cities and towns. When I asked them if the law could be repealed (as gubernatorial candidate and GOP House Minority Leader John McKinney has suggested), Williams said he has opposed keno in the past. “It’s not necessarily too late to repeal it, if another revenue source is found,” Williams said. Sharkey said the suggestion wasn’t realistic and that the process was too far along.  

But the Lottery Corp. said that it hasn’t begun any substantial work on a rollout of the game. That’s because nothing can happen until state negotiations conclude with the Mashantucket and Mohegan tribes, since the law gives the tribes 12.5 percent of keno revenue. 

The state Office of Policy and Management confirmed that there is nothing to report so far in negotiating with the tribes. There’s no rush; the department pointed out that the money keno is supposed to provide this year is minimal, with the full amount included in the following fiscal year. And while the law allows the Lottery to adopt the game, it is not mandated. 

So, at the risk of sounding simplistic, why don’t we just say no? After all, there is now a budget surplus, according to state Comptroller Kevin Lembo. While the state has plenty of challenges ahead, Connecticut is seeing an uptick in the economy. 

Speaker Sharkey pointed out that the only people objecting to the expansion of keno so far are editorial writers like me. “If there is a groundswell of opposition, I’m not hearing it,” he said.

Fair enough. Of course, had keno been openly debated at a public hearing instead of tacked onto the budget in secret, there might well have been opposition.  And in a Quinnipiac University poll taken in June, 59 percent of Connecticut citizens expressed opposition to adding keno to bars, restaurants and stores, with 35 percent supporting it.

Introducing keno gains short-term revenue at the cost of sowing longer-term problems. While a minority of the gambling population develops addiction, becoming pathological or problem gamblers (a little less than 4 percent in Connecticut, according to a 2009 study), studies show that these addicts provide up to one-third of gambling revenues. They often destroy their own families and lives in the process. Their addiction drives many to experience financial ruin, depression, and incarceration. A few commit suicide. Government shouldn’t be in the business of creating more social pathology in the name of stuffing the state treasury. 

Second, keno opens the door to approving even more games of chance – games like video poker. Already, an informal group of House members and at least one senator are meeting to discuss bringing video gambling to the state.

Third, approving keno may well increase gambling among minority groups that can afford it the least. That’s what happened in New York State, according to Dr. Rachel Volberg, the author of one of the only prevalence studies to be done on keno in the last 20 years.

When New York State approved keno in the 1990s, Dr. Volberg conducted two surveys, one six months after keno became legal in 1996, the other survey three years later. In 1996, 91 percent of players were white.  Three years later, 68 percent of keno players were minorities, with the typical players either black or Hispanic – both groups who make the least in Connecticut.  

We should be better than this. Keno will come at too high a price. Repeal it.

 

Comments

comments