It says a lot about a piece of legislation when, as the Connecticut General Assembly is wont to do, lawmakers act at the last moment, hold no public hearings, and pass it in the wee hours of the morning.
Such is the case with this year’s budget package, which featured language legalizing keno, a highly addictive video numbers game that essentially offers a new lottery every five minutes. The budget passed the Democratic-controlled General Assembly largely along party lines. The Keno provision was an open secret among lawmakers and the casinos that stand to profit from the expansion of gambling in the state. For obvious reasons (perhaps the odious nature of the product in a state that’s already too dependent on gambling revenues?) the public was kept in the dark.
Adding insult to injury, however, is that, as of early this month, the secrecy continues. We still know very little about when or where the game will be played. We know only that by next year keno could be played at about 600 different locations in our tiny state, including restaurants, taverns, and establishments already licensed to sell lottery tickets.
On the legal side, it looks like the state’s two Indian casinos, which claim exclusive rights to casino-style gambling, are on board with the plan, thanks to what amounts to a bribe from the legislature that shares 12.5 percent of the keno take with each tribe. The state is expected to collect an estimated $31 million during the first two years of keno. And unlike the lottery or the gross receipts tax, there’s no pretending the proceeds will go toward a popular cause such as education or transportation. No, the new revenue will go straight into the general fund to help close a chronic budget gap.
A recent lottery board meeting adjourned to executive session when talk turned to keno. And officials refused to answer questions from attendees and reporters after emerging from behind closed doors. Frank Farricker, chairman of the Lottery Board of Directors, told my editor Christine Stuart there had been some limited open discussions of keno at the June board and subcommittee meetings, but I can’t find any record of them online.
Thankfully, the interminable secrecy is starting to ruffle political feathers. Senate Minority Leader John McKinney has called on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his Democratic colleagues to pull the plug on keno.
Of course, the last time keno was seriously proposed in Connecticut it was by Republican Gov. Jodi Rell and it was Democrats such as Senate President Pro Tem Don Williams who called it a “misery tax” on the poor. So take the current positions of elected officials on the subject for what they’re worth.
Be that as it may, McKinney told the Courant he is exasperated, has “not been told anything about keno,” and is “extremely disturbed” by the executive sessions. So, too, are House Minority Leader Larry Cafero and Mary Drexler, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, who told CTNewsJunkie she felt like her organization was “thrown under the bus” by the Keno proposal.
And there are concerns among lefties as well. In the race for the Democratic nomination for mayor in New Haven, primary challenger Henry Fernandez has slammed the frontrunner, state Rep. Toni Harp, a keno supporter and co-chairwoman of the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee. Fernandez said keno “will break up New Haven families, it will increase poverty, it will increase crime, and it will do nothing to reduce New Haven’s budget problems.”
“Keno has always been in the back of our minds,” Farricker, the lottery chairman, said of the murky planning and preparation that went into the latest ugly expansion of gambling in the state.
Unfortunately, for government watchdogs and compulsive gambling advocates, keno has been more like, “Out of sight, out of mind.”