Forcing keno debate good bet for GOP

In the past two years, both of Connecticut's major political parties have denounced the video numbers game known as keno as a particularly insidious form of gambling that preys on the poor and has no place in the lives of Connecticut citizens.

So guess what insidious form of gambling may be coming to a bar or restaurant and many other outlets near you next June 1, courtesy of the same Democratic and Republican parties?

Keno is a variation on bingo and is favored by casinos for its long odds and fat contributions to the house. Players pick 20 numbers between 1 and 80 and the payoff is based on how many numbers are picked correctly or, to add to the thrills, some keno operators offer payoffs on how few numbers you can pick. Either way, it's a simple game. Any sucker can play.

The odds of picking all 20 numbers or no numbers are said to be one in 3.5 quintillion, which means no one in the history of humankind has ever done it. Something on the order of Powerball on steroids.

Gov. Jodi Rell got the keno ball rolling in 2011 when, seeking to reduce a deficit, she turned to it as a way to raise $60 million or so and every $60 million helps in difficult times.

To her credit, Gov. Rell proposed keno the old-fashioned way; she announced it. But the Democrats, who ran both houses of the General Assembly then, as they do now, were morally offended by the proposal. Sen. Donald Williams, then and now, the Senate president, called keno "a misery tax," imposed mostly on people who can't afford to play. Keno failed in the Democratic legislature.

Two years after the Rell administration tried to enrich our culture with keno, it was the Malloy administration's turn and with the benefit of the Rell experience, the governor decided against announcing his keno plans. Instead, the administration, in collusion with the leaders of the Democratic majorities in both houses, Speaker Brendan Sharkey and Senate President Donald "Misery Tax" Williams, pushed through the bill in the session's final hours. There was no public input, no debate, just a vote. But the Democrats did predict a more modest state take of $40 million from keno, which would indicate no one really knows.

This time, the Republicans played the morality card but it rang a bit hollow, given the same legislators' enthusiasm for Gov. Rell's keno that is too recent to be forgotten. Sen. Williams, asked about how he could oppose and support keno, depending on who's governor, has said he still doesn't like it.

The truth is, both parties have seen to it that Connecticut has become as dependent upon gambling as the most hopeless addict and if you detect a bit of hypocrisy here, you're on to something.

But there's still time to stop or, at least, delay the addition of keno, which truly is a special burden of the poor, according to studies of player demographics.

The state has not yet signed off on the agreement with the tribal casinos that get a percentage of the take under the deal they made during the Weicker administration and upon further consideration, Gov. Malloy may not want to be on record as the father of keno in Connecticut as he seeks a second term. Thanks to his penchant for governing behind closed doors, he's already running as the anti-transparency governor.

If the deal is cancelled, the Republicans could follow the lead of potential Malloy rival, Sen. John McKinney, and introduce a bill repealing or banning keno. At the very least, this would force the public hearings and scrutiny such a major expansion of gambling demands and lead to a public vote in the General Assembly before next November's election.

We believe it would be the right thing to do but the odds of it happening may be as forbidding as the odds of winning big at keno.

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