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Could Connecticut keno be dead?

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published January 15. 2014 4:00AM

The proposal to turn on keno gambling throughout Connecticut has been cloaked in secrecy from the start, beginning with an end-of-the-session General Assembly vote last year, in which a deal was announced.

The keno scheme, which has millions in new budget-closing revenues attached, was officially made public at the close of the legislature's session, a surprise announcement that came without any prior warning, without hearings or public input.

It was the state's Democratic majority acting at its most imperious and worst.

Since then, the public has gotten little notice about how the fast-paced game would roll out. There's been no marketing plan made public, for instance, to indicate exactly where restaurant and bar venues will be located or how much retail keno might expand gambling beyond lottery players.

State officials initially said the new games could be up and running by the end of 2013. Then they said keno would be running before the end of the fiscal year, by June.

And yet last week, two legislative researchers mentioned, seemingly offhand, during a legislative task force hearing on installing slot machines outside the Indian casinos that there is still no keno agreement with the casino-operating Indian tribes.

The tribes, in return for their 25 percent contribution of slot machine revenues to the state, billions of dollars since the casinos opened, say they are guaranteed a gambling monopoly, which would preclude keno or more slots.

State Democrats, in announcing their keno scheme last year, said the tribes would get 25 percent of the state's keno profits. The suggestion was that they generally have agreed to that. But maybe not.

You would think that, since we are more than halfway through the fiscal year for which some keno revenue has been budgeted, that lawmakers would have asked a few questions about the lack of a tribal keno agreement, when it came up at a task force hearing on the topic of expanding gambling.

But it seems the task force is dominated by legislators representing the districts where the three pari-mutuel betting facilities proposed for new slot machines are located. And all those lawmakers seemed to want to hear about last week were slot machines.

Task force members did not ask any serious follow-up questions about the lack of an agreement with the tribes on keno, even though the tribes would also have to sign off on new slot machines, perhaps an increasingly unlikely prospect.

James Amann, a former Connecticut House speaker, lobbying for slot machines for the Shoreline Star Greyhound Park in Bridgeport, was the star speaker at the task force hearing. Lawmakers hung on his every slots-loving word. They call the proposed new slots convenience machines, because you wouldn't have to drive all the way to the casinos to play them. There could be some right in your neighborhood.

Amann looked as if he had been sent by central casting, to play the grizzled former state pol, hired by a lucrative lobbying client, in this case a gambling enterprise, to call in favors from his old colleagues.

I didn't have much luck at first piercing the keno veil of secrecy at the quasi-public Connecticut Lottery Corp., until I bullied my way through their phone system to speak with lottery President Anne M. Noble, who was polite and pleasant.

When I asked if the lottery was going to make the June deadline for a keno start, she said: "We are going to bring this to the marketplace in a responsible way. And the first step is to have tribal agreements."

If the lack of a yes or no in that answer sounds lawyerly, it could be because Noble was chief counsel to Republican Gov. Jodi Rell, before being named lottery chief.

Noble did also point me to minutes from the November lottery board meeting, in which it was reported: "The uncertainty of the timing of the tribal agreement has created challenges in executing software development plans for this fiscal year."

Noble was off the phone before I could get in more questions, like how much of the $5.4 million approved for a state keno vendor has been spent.

Spokesmen for the two tribes did not respond to questions Tuesday about the keno talks. Indeed, why should they?

Andrew Doba, a spokesman for Gov. Dannel Malloy, said talks are continuing with the tribes.

"Once they are completed," he said in an email, "we will work with the lottery commission on the next steps."

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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