Sen. Stillman's good idea: block keno

State Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, has introduced legislation that would repeal the legislature's authorization to provide electronic keno games in hundreds of bars and restaurants across Connecticut. The Democratic majority cooked up the keno plan in the closing days of the 2013 legislative session to boost revenues and balance the budget they were scrambling to pass.

This newspaper has consistently opposed the keno plan and urges lawmakers to support Sen. Stillman's bill. Keno is an insidious way to raise state revenues. It exposes people who might never step inside a casino to a particularly addictive form of gambling and studies show, like all lottery games, it disproportionately attracts the poor and desperate.

This is a great chance to end the keno plan before it starts. Sen. Stillman makes a succinct argument. "There is no need to expand gambling in the state," she said.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who signed keno into law as part of the state budget, recently noted, "keno is ubiquitous and is frequently run by lottery corporations in other states." We are sure the governor's mom told him more than once that "everyone else is doing it" is never an adequate excuse.

The last-minute approval of keno gambling in 2013 was particularly loathsome because the authorization came outside the normal legislative process, with no committee meetings or public hearings. Democratic leaders, such as Senate President Donald Williams, who had opposed keno when offered as a budget fix by the prior Republican administration (back then Sen. Williams called it "a misery tax"), rushed aboard when it was a Democratic governor in charge.

Estimates as to how much "misery tax" revenue keno would generate have continued to shrink. It is now estimated at $13.5 million through the end of fiscal year 2014-2015, down from the $31 million originally forecast over the course of the two-year budget cycle.

Connecticut cannot roll out keno without approval from the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes because their compact with the state gives them exclusive gambling rights at their respective Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort casinos. The assumption has been that the tribes would allow keno in return for a piece of the action.

The Hartford Business Journal reported about two weeks ago that Connecticut authorities had reached a deal with the tribes that would allow the state to operate keno in exchange for 25 percent of revenues, attributing the information to Chuck Bunnell, Mohegan's chief of staff for external and government affairs.

"For all intents and purposes, that agreement is essentially done," Bunnell told the publication.

The state should not finalize any agreement until the fate of Sen. Stillman's proposed repeal is clear.

As for her proposal, the signals are mixed. His old misery concerns aside, Sen. Williams told the CT News Junkie he is against repeal. He still wants the cash to help balance the state's budget.

Gov. Malloy, meanwhile, has retreated to a very unMalloy-like approach of leading from behind. He does not have an opinion on repeal and will leave it to the legislature, he says. Certainly, the governor, having argued the state has turned a fiscal corner with improving revenues, can keep the budget balanced without the measly $13.5 million in projected keno revenues.

Gov. Malloy has been somewhat disingenuous of late on the matter of his role in the keno tale. Not his idea, he now says. Technically correct, perhaps, but the idea of making keno an 11th-hour addendum to the budget would not have proceeded without a wink and a nod from the governor.

Since its approval last June, it has become clear the keno policy is not a big hit with the public, which probably best explains the governor's shift in tone.

This was a bad idea poorly executed. The legislature should pass and the governor sign Sen. Stillman's repeal legislation.

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