It isn’t often that I pray for the governor to fail — or that I root against new revenue sources that won’t even take money out of my own wallet. But I hope to God that the Office of Policy and Management can’t agree with the state’s two Indian casinos on a revenue-sharing arrangement for the highly addictive form of gambling known as keno.
The story of the game in Connecticut is almost comical. Keno was first seriously proposed in Connecticut in 2009 and 2010 by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell and it was Democrats such as then-Senate President Pro Tem Don Williams who called it a “misery tax” whose burden would fall disproportionately on the poor. Fortunately, both those proposals went nowhere.
In 2013, the General Assembly adopted keno to close a budget deficit — a yawning gap that at this point, along with grasping to find new revenues, has become an annual phenomenon.
But lawmakers quickly repealed it the next year before it could be set up. In comical fashion, legislative leaders and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy fell all over themselves to disavow any knowledge of who initiated the original unpopular legislation. Not us, they insisted with a straight face.
Now lawmakers have changed their mind yet again. In the recent two-year spending package passed in the wee hours earlier this month, keno was among the new sources of revenue lawmakers will depend upon to balance the budget. It’s enough to make your head spin — or explode, depending on your point of view.
For the uninitiated, keno is a bingo-like lottery game that essentially offers a new lottery every few minutes — or what one columnist called a “personal, real-time numbers-based lottery game.” It is known to be highly addictive. And as is the case with most forms of gambling, the people who can least afford it are the biggest losers.
I work in Massachusetts, where it’s common to see people who barely have enough money to pay for the shirts on their backs line up at the Cumberland Farms in Great Barrington to play something called KENO-To-Go, which the state lottery commission created after a slump in regular Keno sales and which it markets as “a great opportunity for you to play up to 30 consecutive KENO games. All the rules and regulations are the same as the original KENO. You can leave the premises and check your ticket online.”
Oh boy! Perfect for sucker on-the-go. It would be one thing for a common huckster to pull a bait-and-switch, but am I the only one who is troubled by the government trying to lure the downtrodden into losing the little cash they have?
Under the Connecticut plan, the state’s 2,800 lottery retailers would be authorized to run keno, which is pretty much what you’d expect. But like Willie Sutton, lawmakers know where the money is so they’ve added hundreds of restaurants and bars to the list of establishments that will be eligible. Now imagine thousands of customers, lubricated by adult beverages, playing a highly addictive and costly game. The broker they get, the more money the government has to run itself.
But soaking the poor gamblers isn’t enough. Under the budget agreement, the tax on cigarettes will rise by 50 cents over the next two years to $3.90 per pack, making Connecticut second only to New York in the tax burden borne by smokers.
It’s hard to have much sympathy for smokers. It’s an offensive and deadly habit, to be sure. But studies have consistently shown that, like those who play the lottery, smokers are less educated and poorer than the general population.
In addition, racial minorities will be disproportionately affected by an increase in the cigarette tax since non-whites are far more likely to be smokers, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.
How could a self-styled progressive state embrace such a regressive tax scheme? We’re effectively taxing poor people and the organizations that care for them (e.g. hospitals, whose Medicaid reimbursement rates are also being cut), while insisting that corporations pay the working poor higher wages. For what purpose? So that they can gamble away more of their paychecks?
All this for an estimated $43.6 million in keno revenue over the next two years. And, in the case of cigarettes, it’s not even clear whether higher taxes will actually bring in more money to the treasury because of the possibility of increased smuggling.
And of course the introduction of keno is essentially predicated on the assumption that we can’t find $43.6 million in savings anywhere in the budget. Does anyone really believe that?
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