In the waning days of the 2013 session, the Connecticut General Assembly, without hearing or debate, hurriedly approved a budget provision authorizing the Connecticut Lottery Corporation to operate keno lottery games in Connecticut.
Approximately 600 keno terminals are expected to open up across the state, according to the head of the legislature's Finance, Revenue, and Bonding Committee. The deal to allow keno – projected to raise some $27 million in the second year of the budget — was struck ostensibly as a palatable alternative to raising taxes or cutting programs. While the budget-writing legislators — all Democrats — apparently were too rushed to inform the public of what they were up to, these same legislators, with the approval of the governor, somehow found time to negotiate with the Indian gaming casinos, which agreed to tolerate keno gambling in exchange for a 12.5 percent slice of the revenues.
According to a recent Quinnipiac Poll, 59 percent of the public opposes keno. Keno has been rejected twice by previous legislatures in 2009 and 2010, after considerable objection from advocates concerned with the effects of compulsive gambling. Some have called keno the "crack cocaine of legalized gambling." Usually sitting in a bar or restaurant, the keno player picks one or more numbers from 1 to 80, and then watches while 20 randomly-generated numbers pop up one by one on a television monitor. Depending upon how many of the numbers match the screen, the gambler wins or loses the game.
Unlike casino gambling, keno does not require a couple of hours' travel to play. And, where millions of residents play Connecticut Lotto once a day, keno increases the opportunity to gamble for long, uninterrupted periods of time. Games are automatically reset every five to six minutes, allowing for continuous play. Plus, keno machines are programmed to show a higher rate of near-wins, playing into the gambler's false hopes of beating the odds. And for those already addicted, increased exposure to gambling makes it difficult to avoid temptation, particularly in bars and restaurants where alcohol is served.
According to the director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, a large contributor to gambling is its relative convenience. The predisposition to gamble increases as gambling opportunities expand. Thus, the presence of keno games in bars and restaurants presents a ready-made opportunity for gambling, while exposing children to the "fun" of betting as well. Moreover, the speed of the game is associated with higher rates of problem gambling, says Mary Drexler, director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling.
Studies show that gambling disproportionately affects low-income gamblers, who lose a far larger share of their income than do wealthy gamblers. Worse, compulsive gambling is a hidden addiction that can ruin families and lives. Compulsive gambling consumes money and time, which can fracture relationships and affect employment. Gambling addiction can drive individuals to commit crimes of theft, fraud, or embezzlement to support their habit. Lawyers suffer from these problems at an alarming rate, often to the detriment of their clients, their practice, their firms, their careers, and their families.
Connecticut lottery officials reported $1.082 billion spent on casino gambling in the 2012 fiscal year, netting $310 million to the state. Of that amount, the state diverts $1.9 million a year to the Chronic Gamblers Treatment and Rehabilitation Account. The budget provision authorizing keno provided no funds to meet the increased need for problem gambling resources. Following the negative publicity stirred by the insertion of keno gambling into the budget, the Finance Committee belatedly authorized an additional $400,000 from lottery revenues to be diverted to the addiction program account.
The very serious concerns surrounding the establishment of keno should have been subjected to full public hearings and debate. Sadly, our state elected officials chose to sacrifice openness and transparency for the sake of increasing revenues through this regressive, back-door tax. They irresponsibly focused on the fiscal benefits of keno gambling without regard for the social costs associated with increased gambling opportunities — and increased addiction.
Moreover, the local communities, where the impacts will be felt, will obtain no corresponding budget offsets or funds for treating addiction. At a minimum, cities should have the option of deciding whether and when Keno gambling should be allowed within their restaurants, bars, convenience stores, and other venues. Additional authority for local governments to control their borders, and funding for programs to assist problem gamblers, could help to offset the ramifications of this bad piece of public policy. •
Editorial Board chairwoman Joette Katz recused herself from the discussion and vote on this editorial.