Politics
5:26 pm
Tue June 11, 2013

Keno: The Conversation That Never Happened

By Dlogic (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Dlogic (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Mary Drexler is executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling.  When Connecticut considers a big move like adding keno to the gambling menu, it's her job to attend all the public hearings and committee meetings at which the change is discussed.  It's her job to offer testimony on the bill and to recruit other experts who can offer opinion on the impact of increased gaming.  This time, she didn't do any of that.  She couldn't, because there were no public hearings or committee meetings. State-sponsored Keno was legalized in Connecticut by, essentially, a back room deal.

"I found out about it the Friday before the vote on Monday. The legislators who told me about it said it came up as an idea on that Thursday or Friday before the Monday  vote," she said on The Colin McEnroe Show this week.  Why was keno added? To close a hole in the budget created by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's promise of no new taxes, his deputy budget chief Karen Buffkin said on the same show. The budget passed by the legislature shows keno coughing up $30 milllion in fiscal year 2015, the second year of the two-year budget.  I asked Buffkin how many keno machines there would be and how many sites would host keno games and what kinds of establishments would be allowed to offer keno. She said all those things were "as yet to be determined."  Of course. How could any of that be figured out during a process in which 72 hours elapsed between the first glimmering of the idea and its passage within the overall budget? To figure those things out you'd have to have ...public hearings and committee meetings.  But wait a sec. If they don't know how many machines or locations they'll have -- and whether they'll be located in Chuck E. Cheese or the Sidetrack Tap -- how do they know they'll get $30 million in revenue? Buffkin said she's not the one who came up with that number, but "I i think it's based on the experience in terms of the states that surround us and a number of factors including and what we've accrued when we've introduced a new lottery game." Hmmmm.

 New London Day columnist David Collins is not buying the idea that keno just popped into somebody's mind on the Thursday before the Monday budget vote.  In fact, the two Native American tribes running gaming operations in the state had to sign off on the deal. For that to happen, the state had to promise them a cut -- which turns out to be 12.5 percent percent.  That's not a short conversation. Collins asked the tribes about it. This is from his column:

The fact that the state has been secretly negotiating a keno deal with the tribes, cutting them in for a generous 12.5 percent take of the winnings, was obvious from the reactions from both tribes to the keno news, which took most others completely by surprise.Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Chairman Rodney Butler compared the new keno pact to the existing gaming compact with the tribe."Because of this successful partnership with the State and the collaborative relationship with Governor Malloy's administration, we felt it was in the best interest of all to pursue a similar agreement with Keno," he said.So there you have it. The governor negotiated a keno deal with the tribes but never told the public he was planning to expand gambling and cut the tribes in.

So there was time to talk is over with the tribes, but no time to inform anyone else.  Drexler said she has been been in conversations with the governor's office about keno since 2010.  "We had been following the [budget] bill all session long and there was nothing in it about keno," she said. "I was assured we would be alerted if anything was going to be put back in. I was not alerted." In doing the show, we found it was pretty easy to find people -- even in some of those neighboring states Buffkin talked about -- who have studied the impact of introducing keno.  We talked to one researcher, Rachel Volberg, who was hired by the state of New York to study changes in keno customers during the first few years of the game. Volberg said her team said white  non-urban males were the predominant players when the game was introduced, but within three years, young, Latino women in cities had emerged as the heaviest keno players. We also talked to a therapist who specialized in gambling addition in Montana and a recovering Montana keno addict, both of whom described specific ways in which keno lures previous non-gamers into the world of betting and losing.  Our show was only 49 minutes long, but that makes it 49 minutes longer than the public debate the legislature had about legalizing keno.