Pull the Plug on Keno

December 06, 1992

Someone ought to take a good look at keno before this new, addictive electronic gambling system overwhelms Maryland. Not only is it a socially destructive game of chance that preys on the poor, but the circumstances surrounding its approval cry out for a full-scale investigation.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer said he "would welcome an investigation by the attorney general, the U.S. attorney's office, the federal government or anyone else." We share his sentiments. One state delegate aptly described the situation when he said, "It stinks to high heaven."

Mr. Schaefer and the two other members of the Board of Public Works, Lucille Maurer and Louis Goldstein, approved keno last Wednesday, paving the way for 1,600 electronic video computers in bars and restaurants. The three officials hope to lure thousands of Marylanders into wagering millions on keno games every five minutes, 19 hours a day. People can gamble day and night, throwing hard-earned dollars away at a furious clip.

It should be a big revenue-raiser for the state. It certainly is a huge money-maker for the well-connected computer vendor, GTECH, that was given the $49 million contract without any competitive bid. Nor was there any public discussion in the legislature. The governor has managed to circumvent the General Assembly entirely. So much for checks and balances in state government.

Not one legislative leader has stepped forward to question this troubling contract award. Neither House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. nor Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. has said a word about the governor's denying the legislature a say in this huge expansion of gambling. House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings and Senate Budget and Taxation Chairman Laurence Levitan have been mute, too, though Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg calls keno "socially damaging."

Only House Del. Leon Billings of Montgomery County has had the courage to speak out. He's upset with the refusal of state officials to solicit bids on a nearly $50 million contract. If this kind of high-handed activity becomes the norm, the legislature can close up shop and let the Board of Public Works do its work.

Mr. Miller and Mr. Mitchell have an obligation to the legislative branch of government to investigate the keno caper. This was a major fiscal decision, and a major social decision. The legislature, as the people's representatives, never should have been excluded. It sets a dangerous precedent.

Delegate Billings wants the U.S. attorney in Baltimore, Richard D. Bennett, to look into "the whole parameters of gambling in Maryland." The state's top legal officer, J. Joseph Curran Jr., has opted out of the dispute after having given the keno contract his seal of approval. That's unfortunate. This leaves it up to Mr. Bennett -- or the legislature -- to pull the plug on keno.

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