Finance chair wants Keno included in new gambling debate

Rep. Jeffrey Berger, D-Waterbury, co-chairman of the Finance Committee

CT MIRROR

Rep. Jeffrey Berger, D-Waterbury, co-chairman of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee

If the state and Connecticut’s Indian tribes are considering opening new gaming sites, then launching Keno – a lottery-style game legislators have flirted with in recent years – must be on the table as well, the House chairman of the legislature’s revenue panel said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, representatives of the tribes that run the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resorts casinos both said their groups would be willing at a minimum to negotiate with state officials on this matter.

Given objections raised by legislators, business advocates and others to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s recent tax proposals, Keno is a potentially lucrative revenue source that deserves another look, said Rep. Jeff Berger, D-Waterbury, co-chairman of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.

The two casinos in Connecticut’s southeastern corner are “an industry that we need to support,” Berger said. “But we also need to support the Connecticut Lottery. And right now it is constricted in growth.”

The state’s quasi-public lottery corporation in recent years has supported the legalization of Keno, an electronic, lottery-style numbers game offered in bars and restaurants in some states.

The legislature and Malloy enacted a statute two years ago that would have allowed Keno to be offered in Connecticut bars and restaurants, but scrapped plans before they were implemented one year later amid fears of voter opposition heading into the 2014 state elections.

Since then, legislators have realized they are unlikely to close big budget deficits projected for each of the next two fiscal years – $1.3 billion in 2015-16 and $1.4 billion in 2016-17 – without additional resources.

The biennial plan Malloy proposed last month would boost net tax revenues by $360 million over two years, and delay or cancel another $480 million in approved tax cuts that were supposed to begin over that period.

In addition, the administration says Connecticut’s transportation fund needs about $400 million per year in new revenue by 2020, both to close a projected shortfall and to launch a major new infrastructure building program.

“We need to look at Keno for (the lottery) to remain competitive,” Berger said.

While the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis projected two years ago that legalizing Keno would yield about $27 million annually for the state’s coffers, the lottery corporation has said the potential for long-term growth is greater.

Berger agrees, adding that Keno would move the lottery program into new markets and vendors while increasing its overall competitiveness.

In Massachusetts – the home of the most successful lottery in the nation in terms of per capita sales – the $790 million wagered on keno two years ago was 17 percent of the lottery’s gross revenues of $4.7 billion.

Connecticut could not launch Keno without the approval of the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes, which own the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resorts casinos, respectively.

Under a 22-year-old compact, Connecticut grants the tribes exclusive rights to offer casino games in the state, and both sides have acknowledged Keno falls under this umbrella. In return, the tribes give the state 25 percent of all video slot receipts from the casinos. That is worth an estimated $267.5 million this fiscal year, according to nonpartisan fiscal analysts.

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.

Chuck Bunnell, chief of staff for the Mohegan tribe, said Tuesday that the tribe was willing two years ago to reopen the compact to discuss Keno legalization, “and we would still come back to the table.”

Crystal Whipple, vice chairwoman of the Mashantucket Pequots, said her tribe also would be willing to negotiate with the state regarding Keno.

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