Capitol Connection

September 4, 2013

Place your bets! The first meeting of the legislative task force charged with discussing the expanding of video slots in Connecticut meets this week. In other words – lawmakers are going to talk about Keno, which has been referred to as a "misery tax."

For those who may not have heard of the game, the word "keno" has French or Latin roots (Meaning "five winning numbers", or "five each"). Typically, the more numbers a player chooses on their Keno card (think bingo) and the more numbers hit, the greater the payout.

Governor Dannel Malloy and democratic leaders snuck this into the state budget without the knowledge of many legislators. They claim it will produce $31 million in its first two years. There are a couple of catches. The Indian tribes have to sign off on Keno. Any expansion of gambling must be okay with the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes. They own exclusive rights to such games under the original compact that hands over 25 percent of slot machine revenues to the state.

And the Connecticut Lottery Corporation board of directors must vote this month to spend nearly $3 million on equipment and software to set up Keno. But wait a minute, those are taxpayer dollars. Can we see how all of this is going to work?

That was one of the questions I posed to Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes in July. I asked that the following copies be provided to my office under the Freedom of Information Act:

  • Any correspondence, documents or other written memorialization related to the negotiations of the agreement between the state and the Tribes
  • Any memoranda of understanding related to the agreement
  • The basis for the revenue estimates included in the budget
  • Any correspondence, documents or written memorialization between the state and any manufacturer, distributer or operator of keno machines
  • And written documents between OPM and the Connecticut Lottery Corporation regarding keno

I will say the Agency responded quickly, within 3 days of my request. The answer however, was disappointing. The Executive Secretary of Legal Affairs for OPM wrote, "We are canvassing this agency for any responsive documents that are not exempt from disclosure."

Exemptions in the disclosure law are usually there to protect parties from revealing trade secrets. In this case, I believe the public’s right to know is more important than the private interest. Why are we expected to just accept the use of millions in taxpayer dollars in the hopes it will raise revenue for an administration that has an addiction to spending?

Keno was never properly vetted during the committee process, was never discussed by the appropriate committees, was not included in the legislative budget, and was never proposed at any time until the final budget document was made public on the day of the vote. I still have numerous questions and reservations regarding the process, the agreements and any subsequent discussions that have occurred as a result of the legislation and so should you. This is your money.

Quinnipiac University took a poll on Keno. It showed a majority of residents are opposed to legalizing electronic keno gambling. Mary Drexler, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, has called the legislators’ decision to legalize keno "astounding," given data showing gambling can create more problems than it solves.

I don’t blame the casinos who have had years of declining revenues and have reportedly agreed to enter into separate agreements with the state to allow Keno. In return, language in the law suggests that each tribe would get a sum not to exceed 12.5 percent share of the gross operating revenue raised by the state from Keno. They need the money.

But I am not ready to say this $31 million bet is going to pay off for the rest of us. In fact, if you believe that Keno is the answer, then I have a bridge to sell you.