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Keno’s Repeal Is No Longer A Sure Bet In Connecticut

Keno, the unwanted child of Connecticut politics, vilified by gambling opponents and publicly defended by no major political figure, improbably remains alive as the General Assembly begins the last two weeks of the 2014 session.

The leaders of the House and Senate, after calling for the repeal of the electronic lottery game after an improving revenue forecast in January indicated the state could afford to forgo new gambling income, now are hedging their bets.

“It’s in the budget until somebody finds an alternative funding source,” said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr. (D-Brooklyn). House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden) said he intends to “reserve judgment” on repeal until he sees revenue figures at the end of April, a key month for income-tax collections.

Senator John Fonfara (D-Hartford), the co-chairman of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, whose committee refused to approve a repeal bill, goes further than the leaders: He flatly predicts that keno will remain on the books.

Opponents are dumbfounded.

After all, Governor Dannel P. Malloy all but disowned it. Sharkey and Williams told reporters in February they never liked it and would be fine if the game was repealed before the first wager was placed. And no one except the Connecticut Lottery Corp. has been lobbying for its survival.

“It got covered by all of the press,” said Mary Drexler, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling. “The public doesn’t think keno is coming.”

Keno’s survival, if that’s how the story ends, follows the script of its birth. Without public debate, keno was added to the budget in the closing days of the legislature’s session in 2013, a last-minute way to find some revenue. No one took credit or responsibility.

Nonpartisan analysts estimate the game would yield $26 million annually for Connecticut. In the next state budget, which is expected to spend about $19 billion, this represents one-seventh of 1 percent.

Drexler said if no one wanted to claim keno’s parentage in 2013, they should be more forthcoming about its fate in 2014.

“If this is going to stay in the budget,” she said, “people should say where they stand.”

Two of the legislature’s most vocal opponents of any expansion of legalized gambling — Senator Andrea L. Stillman (D-Waterford) and Representative Tony Hwang (R-Fairfield) — echoed Drexler’s appeal.

“I think the perception is out there that keno is gone because of the comments of the leading members of the legislature and of the governor,” Stillman said, adding she needs to know where those leaders stand before the next state budget is brought to a vote. “That’s a deal-breaker for me. I won’t support a budget that has keno.”

Hwang said the unanimous adoption of a keno repeal measure in the legislature’s Public Safety Committee got extensive media coverage in March, and portrayed final repeal as all but a certainty.

“For us as a legislative body not to follow through, and to let this remain without comment, is unacceptable,” he said.

The 2013 budget requires the Lottery Corp. to offer keno once the Malloy administration negotiates profit-sharing terms with the state’s two tribal casinos, which have exclusive rights to offer slot machines. The lottery disagrees, but the tribes consider keno to be a form of slots.

Keno is a centralized electronic drawing game, whose results are broadcast on video screens in bars, restaurants and stores in the states where it is offered, including New York and Massachusetts. In New York, a drawing is held every four minutes.

Players pick between one and ten numbers from an 80-number field. Picking five correct numbers on a ten-number bet wins $2, six gets $10, seven $45, eight $300, nine $5,000 and ten $100,000. Odds of winning $100,000 are one in 9 million.

If projected keno revenue is relatively modest, the state’s stake in gambling is not. The state’s annual gambling revenue, primarily from the lottery and slots at the two tribal casinos, was $612.5 million in 2013, down from a high of $718 million in 2006.

For the first time, the lottery produced more money for the state last year than the casinos, $312 million to $296 million.

Keno represents a two-fold expansion for the lottery: It is a new game, and it also is expected to expand the existing network of 2,800 lottery vendors to hundreds of new outlets, primarily bars and restaurants. The new outlets would be expected to sell all lottery products, not just keno.

Frank Farricker, the chairman of the lottery, urged the Public Safety Committee in February to do nothing to stop the lottery from offering the game. A Malloy appointee, Farricker said he was neither encouraged nor discouraged by the administration to defend keno.

Andrew Doba, a spokesman for Malloy, said two months ago the governor intends to sign a repeal bill should one be passed, but that he views the Lottery Corp. as an independent entity, free to argue for what it sees as the best policies on gambling.

Doba said over the weekend that nothing has changed: “The governor has made it clear that he will sign a bill repealing keno if it passes the legislature.”

Though no one at the Capitol claims to be the impetus behind Keno’s original adoption — or its seeming rise from political death over the past two months — Republican legislative leaders say the answer lies with Malloy and his fellow Democrats in the General Assembly’s majority.

“You can’t find a person in this place who takes credit for keno,” said State Rep Sean Williams of Watertown, ranking GOP representative on the finance committee. “But we are so addicted to revenue in this place.”

A surplus is projected for the fiscal year that ends June 30, but nonpartisan analysts are projecting a more than $1 billion hole in state finances next year, a roughly 6 percent gap that Malloy dismisses as inconsequential.

Republicans intend to make sure the issue has political consequences.

“I believe the message to the general public in February was that we didn’t need keno anymore, and we were getting rid of it,” said Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney (R-Fairfield), who is running for governor and who called for keno’s repeal in late 2013. “The perception the Democrats are leaving the public with now is, you can’t trust anything that they say.”

(This story originally appeared at CTMirror.org, the website of The Connecticut Mirror, an independent, nonprofit news organization covering government, politics, and public policy in the state.)

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