Connecticut's keno retreat a hopeful step away from gambling expansion

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and state legislative leaders finally bowed to public pressure this month and began a hasty retreat on keno, the bingo-like gambling game legalized last year but not yet implemented.

The Democratic-controlled legislature passed keno as part of the state budget in an effort to raise $28 million annually by authorizing the game for restaurants, bars and convenience stores, but did so without hearings or debate, drawing sharp criticism from Republicans and the media. The governor, House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, and Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams all defended keno as a money-generator being used by a number of other states.

Since then, a Quinnipiac University poll has shown that nearly 60 percent of Connecticut residents oppose the keno measure, numerous editorials have called for its repeal, including this newspaper, and there has been a rising tide of public opposition as people have focused on the fact that the law would put a highly addictive form of gambling in up to 3,000 venues where it does not currently exist, including restaurants where children are present.

It took eight months, but the state's political leaders finally responded to the mounting opposition. On Feb. 12, Malloy stated that he would be willing to sign legislation to repeal keno if the legislature passed a bill to that effect. Keno was not his idea, the governor said. In fact, he had nothing to do with it, he claimed, and was surprised when it was passed at the last minute.

Seemly taken back by the governor's defection, Sharkey and Williams said a week later that they would be willing to support repeal, but insisted the governor had been as much a part of keno's passage as they had. "Everybody was all in on this budget," Sharkey told a forum in Cromwell, according to The Hartford Courant. "Everybody agreed to what we were going to do - the House, the Senate and the administration. It was simply a (last minute) revenue option that was acceptable to the governor."

While it is amusing to watch the state's highest elected officials scramble for the door and try to deflect blame for a bad piece of legislation, it is extremely troubling to think this is the way they enacted a bill that would spread a gambling game equated to crack cocaine across the state. Fortunately, a number of key legislators refused to go along. For example, Senate and House minority leaders John McKinney and Larry Cafero denounced keno from the start, and Senate Deputy Majority Leader Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, was the first to break with her party's leadership by introducing legislation to repeal keno.

The task now is to move forward and actually repeal keno, which will require hearings and continued pressure from keno opponents. Moreover, we hope that the change of heart on keno doesn't simply reflect fear of losing votes in this year's election, but indicates a growing appreciation of the negative social and economic consequences of expanding casino-type gambling.

This is an important question because of two looming gambling initiatives that could have a far greater impact on the state than keno.

First, a legislative task force is considering legislation permitting the state to enter into an agreement with Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun that would enable the state to place 2,500 video slot machines at each of the off-track betting facilities in Bridgeport, New Haven and Windsor Locks. The plan would create three major slots casinos with 7,500 slots to go along with Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun's current 11,400 slots.

Second, Malloy has indicated he favors permitting in-state online gambling for Connecticut's two tribal casinos, which say they need it in order to defend and expand their customer base. In fact, Foxwoods just announced the launch of a test Internet gaming platform in anticipation of Connecticut legalizing online betting.

More gambling is not an answer to Connecticut's financial problems. Rather than encouraging people to gamble away their paychecks, we need to attract productive, living-wage jobs, promote stable revenue streams, and end the runaway spending that has saddled the state with $52 billion in debt.

Robert Steele of Essex was a Republican U.S. congressman from 1970 to 1974 and is the author of "The Curse: Big-Time Gambling's Seduction of a Small New England Town." State Rep. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, is a member of the Public Safety and Security Committee, which oversees gambling.

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