Legalizing Keno—Budget Panacea or Dangerously Unknown Entity?

When the state legislature was piecing together a budget last month, they had planned on an “energy auction” bringing in tens of millions of dollars as proposed by Gov. Dannel Malloy. Grassroots organizations objected loudly enough to kill the auction. So the legislature needed a quick fix; one done so quick as to avoid the time needed to raise such objections. Hence, the legalization of Keno. Yet the question still remains—will the new gambling expansion really produce the projected revenue or will it fall flat, highlighting the fact it never even had a public hearing before being inserted into the budget at the last minute.

Even some Democratic leaders who pushed through Keno are wary of how much money it will produce. Another can’t bring himself to even mention the word “Keno.”

Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney says in tough budget times, Keno is not desirable but at least acceptable. “It really is a type of voluntary tax. And the revenue was needed to avoid further cuts to social services in the budget.” Looney, regarded by many as “the conscience of the legislature,” also noted Connecticut is not alone in legalizing the game. “All the bordering states—Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York—already have Keno,” he said. Looney also confirmed that the Native-American Indian tribe will receive 12.5 percent of the Keno take each, meaning 25 percent of the loot is gone before it even reaches state coffers.

Hartford Courant columnist and radio talk show host Colin McEnroe recently wrote a piece completely flaming the General Assembly whose leaders he says, “jammed keno legalization into a budget package two or three business days before it was passed. They squeezed press coverage and the public right to know down to a number near zero.” Harsh, yes—but also accurate.

McEnroe also questioned how much revenue Keno would actually generate. He says, “Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s deputy budget chief told me the state doesn’t know how many machines are coming, how many places they’ll be in, or whether those places are bars, gas stations, restaurants or Chuck E. Cheese’s. But somehow they feel confident in promising $30 million in tax revenues in the second year of the budget.”

McEnroe did better than The Shad did with the governor’s budget office. After three phones calls and an email over four days to spokesman Gian-Carl Casa asking about anticipated money from Keno, I found no such professed confidence in their projected numbers. What I got was the equivalent of “go ask the legislature’s budget office. Those are their numbers.”

I thought I would try to ask state Senate President Don Williams (my former boss at the legislature) his opinion about Keno. After all, he was the leader who called Keno “a misery tax” and a “shaky proposition” when it was proposed by Republican Gov. Jodi Rell in 2009. Williams obviously didn’t want to talk about Keno. He responded to me with a written statement through his spokesman: “This was a budget of tough choices. It is a budget that is balanced, does not raise taxes and includes $2.6 billion in cuts. At the same time, we were able to protect funding for critical investments in education and help towns maintain services and hold the line on local property taxes.” Well, it obviously includes at least a “misery tax.”

The thing is, I didn’t ask if the budget was difficult (it was), whether it is balanced (it is, with smoke and mirrors by nearly all accounts) or whether it avoids new local property taxes (that remains to be seen). I asked about Keno. Williams didn’t want to talk about this now-acceptable “misery tax.” (To be fair, Sen. Williams hasn’t see fit to speak to me or return my phone calls for months—the result of some “call ‘em as I see ‘em” editions of The Hanging Shad that dared to criticize his caucus and/or his staff. I’m not really sure which since he never raised an objection to me personally. He just refuses to speak to me. Childish, I know, but his silence on Keno therefore is not surprising.)

McEnroe’s blunt column raised many eyebrows in the legislature when he wrote, “We’re all used to what they laughably call a process: Any time they want to do something repugnant, they blow off their rule book, slam the door on anyone who might fuss and pass some abomination before it can get press coverage. The Republican minority, most of the time, is an agreeable Vichy regime.” Ouch. But as usual, McEnroe is right.