Lawmakers Clash Over Keno Gambling At Hearing [Hartford Courant]

April 16, 2015

Hartford – Lawmakers clashed again Wednesday over keno, the on-again, off-again gambling game that has been debated at the legislature for years.

The finance committee conducted the first public hearing on the issue this year, a step toward instituting keno as a revenue-raiser as the legislature tries to balance the state’s two-year, $40 billion budget.

The bingo-like game has ping-ponged back and forth as Republicans and Democrats squabble over legalizing the game outside of the state’s two Indian casinos.

When keno was placed into the state budget and signed into law by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in 2013, it paved the way for as many as 1,000 keno locations, in bars, restaurants, veterans clubs and off-track-betting outlets as well as in convenience stores that already sell lottery tickets.

But the quasi-public Connecticut Lottery Corp. never introduced the game and the legislature stripped keno out of the budget last year. As a result, the game is illegal outside of the casinos.

If keno is approved by the legislature and everything goes smoothly at the retail level, keno could start in Connecticut by Christmas, officials said.

While legislators disagreed over the merits of the game, the Mohegan Tribe raised concerns about wording in the bill that it said needs to be changed.

“Specifically, the definition of keno has changed to something too loosely defined to be acceptable,” said Charles Bunnell, chief of staff of external affairs for the tribe. “It no longer requires pay slips for the operation of keno and may allow for a fully electronic keno. In addition, language has been removed that prevents online lottery. Some may find these small changes to be insignificant, but in this instance, words do matter greatly, and we wanted to raise these concerns as the committee deliberates on this bill.”

The tribe is concerned that the bill could open the door to online gambling, which is not permitted now in Connecticut.

But Anne M. Noble, president and chief executive of the Connecticut Lottery Corp., testified that customers would receive a pay slip in the same fashion as a regular lottery ticket.

She said keno has been mischaracterized many times, explaining that it does not involve a slot machine, a jackpot game or a touch-screen. The keno drawings would occur every 4 minutes, and the player would go back to the retailer with a winning ticket in the same manner that he or she would return when winning a lottery game.

“Keno, as the lottery will offer it, is not an electronic game,” Noble told legislators. “It is a lottery-draw game, and it is played out of our terminal. You get a play slip, just like Powerball or MegaMillions. The winning numbers are picked by a random-number generator.”

During a 41/2-hour hearing Wednesday, legislators made strong statements both in favor and against keno, a game that’s already available in New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Nationally, 15 lotteries operate keno; Oregon’s is the longest-running at 24 years.

Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, strongly opposes keno. “When we talk about keno, it feels like it’s déjà vu all over again,” Hwang told the finance committee. “A couple of years ago, it was put into a budget and nobody knew how it got there. … This kind of expansion is an ill-advised foray into seeking short-term solutions for revenue.”

Hwang said there are examples around the state of people who “led a fully productive life” before losing huge amounts of money to gambling and leading to “broken lives, marriages lost, and families devastated. Gambling addiction is an illness that is not easily stopped.

“I don’t think we should be in the business of condoning and empowering gambling expansion as a means of feeding our spending habits.”

But Rep. Jeffrey Berger, D-Waterbury, a keno supporter, said the issue was not simply about revenue. Hwang had mentioned problems in Atlantic City, where casinos have closed recently, but Berger rejected that notion.

“The model that is the casino model in Atlantic City is not the keno model,” Berger said. “What [keno] will do is support the Connecticut lottery in its business model.”

If the legislature wants to support additional casinos for the two Indian tribes, then it should also support the state lottery by permitting keno, Berger said.

Hwang said he favors a study on the societal expenses of gambling addiction, saying that the costs of broken lives could far exceed the revenues the state may receive. “What’s next? Going to a Yankee game and playing a keno card?” Hwang asked. “We are facing a culture where gambling is acceptable at every phase of our lives. … The difference is we, as a state, are authorizing it. That is something that I am not very comfortable with.”

But Rep. Russell Morin, D-Wethersfield, said that children are already exposed to lottery tickets, cigarettes and alcohol in stores. Morin, a keno supporter, said that he sometimes plays keno when he visits his son in Rhode Island, where the game is legal.

“You walk into any store and a lottery machine is there for you,” Morin told Hwang. “You walk into a grocery store, and there’s beer. It’s our society. Things are in front of us. … Those problems will not go away if we don’t do keno.”

Keno has been controversial for years, and polls have shown opposition among state residents. A poll by Quinnipiac University in June 2013 showed that 59 percent of residents were opposed to keno, continuing a trend that started several years earlier.

Noble, the lottery president, said keno would help stabilize revenue at the lottery, which contributed $319.5 million to the state last year.

“Keno is very much needed by the lottery, whether casinos expand here or not,” Noble said. “We also see the declining popularity” of Powerball and MegaMillions.

Noble said keno players are different from those who are trying to hit the massive jackpot on Powerball.

“Keno tends to be played by a more educated demographic and skews to a more higher income,” Noble said. “The Connecticut lottery wants people to play all our games.”