Keno clings to life in strange CT legislative mixture

A typical keno game: A video screen with the 20 numbers drawn from a field of 80.

New York Lottery

A typical keno game: A video screen with the 20 numbers drawn from a field of 80.

What do keno, state grants for cities and towns, and the not-for-profit public access network that covers state government have in common?

A lot more than most people might think – at least for now.

The legislature’s Finance, Revenue & Bonding Committee approved a strange mix of a bill Monday that would redirect any keno proceeds – assuming it survives in the new state budget – to Connecticut cities and towns.

That same bill, which passed 33-17, also more than doubles state funding for The Connecticut Network to accommodate a major expansion.

And while the measure technically heads to the Senate floor, legislators on both sides of the aisle predicted it would take some intense backroom negotiations to untangle these issues before the regular 2014 legislative session ends May 7.

“It doesn’t bother me one way or the other” whether legislators maintain plans to launch keno, a lottery-like game, at restaurants and bars Jan. 1, said Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, co-chairman of the finance panel.

But if lawmakers do proceed with the game, the $26 million in revenues it produces each year should be given to cities and towns, not kept by the state, Fonfara said. “We have very limited means of supporting towns,” he added. “They struggle to pay for services.”

The chief lobbying agency for cities and towns, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, acknowledged in a written statement the need for greater state aid, but stopped short of endorsing the measure.

“The proposal to distribute $13.7 million in revenue directly to municipalities from Keno would provide direct fiscal relief to local governments and their residential and business property taxpayers,” the statement read. “CCM will discuss (the bill) with its membership and leadership this week to better assess the legislation, and develop a formal position on the merits of the proposal.”

Keno didn’t appear to have much future in Connecticut when the 2014 session opened in February, despite the fact that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and legislators built revenues from the game into the two-year budget they enacted last June.

The top leaders in the House and Senate both called for keno’s repeal, arguing that any expansion of gambling no longer was necessary with the current state budget running about $500 million in the black.

Malloy said he would sign a repeal bill, adding that he hadn’t sought keno’s inclusion in the budget last spring. Legislative leaders similarly insisted keno hadn’t been their idea as no one claimed responsibility for its place in the budget.

The legislature’s Public Safety Committee approved a bill earlier this session to cancel keno before the planned Jan. 1 launch, and many officials have said they assume the measure would be incorporated into the final 2014-15 budget bill likely to be considered in early May.

So if keno is on political life support, why redirect revenues that likely aren’t going to be raised in the first place?

Sen. Andrea L. Stillman, D-Waterford, one of the legislature’s most vocal opponents of gambling, said she fears it’s an effort to mobilize support among legislators who want more resources for their respective communities.

“We cannot forget the downsides (of gambling) to communities as well,” she said.

Rep. Sean Williams of Watertown, the ranking GOP representatives on the finance committee, said as long as keno remains legal, he would rather see cities and towns, and not the state, get the proceeds. “At least for now it is the law of the land,” he added.

Meanwhile, Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, was trying to figure out what gambling and municipal aid have to do with funding public access television.

Boucher said that while she supports greater coverage of government proceedings, “it does put us in a difficult bind” to have to back Keno in order to support more money for CT-N.

The state dedicates $2.5 million of its proceeds from a tax on cable television companies to the network, which launched in 1999.

CT-N officials are seeking their first increase since 2007, though it is a dramatic one. The network’s proposal would bump the funding up to $6 million by 2017.

According to testimony from CT-N’s president and CEO, Paul Giguere, the network would more than double staffing, from 29.5 to 80 full-time equivalent positions.

These new positions, along with technology upgrades, would allow the network to dramatically expand coverage of all three branches of state government, he told lawmakers. CT-N also would create an online database of recorded events that could be easily researched at any time.

Rep. Patricia Widlitz, D-Guilford, the committee’s other co-chair, conceded that the mix of gambling and public access television isn’t a natural fit. But she told Boucher that CT-N brought its proposal forward after the committee had raised all of its bills, and the request for aid had to be lumped in with another concept.

Ultimately, it was paired with keno.

Fonfara urged committee members to back the measure, calling an expansion for CT-N essential, citing the steady erosion of traditional news media coverage of Capitol matters for more than a decade.

“We’re supposed to have an informed democracy, an informed electorate,” he said. “I’m not so sure we do.”

But Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, said that while he agrees with that principle, he needs to know more about the CT-N proposal to support a funding increase that large. “It really is rather exorbitant to have a 170 percent increase,” he said.

Expanding public access television at the Capitol “is the purest way the public can even see what is happening here,” Williams said, closing with a jab at Malloy and the governor’s fellow Democrats.

“Maybe if CT-N had more cameras (last spring), they would have been able to catch that person who put keno in the budget.”

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