'Keno is a serious policy mistake,' Curran says

December 10, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Staff Writer

Keno may be legal, but that doesn't make it right, Maryland' attorney general stated emphatically yesterday.

"Keno is a serious policy mistake," said Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., the latest in an expanding list of public officials who have voiced concern over or opposition to the new budget-balancing gambling game the Schaefer administration intends to begin early next month.

Also yesterday:

* Sen. John A. Cade, an Anne Arundel County Republican and influential member of the Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee, called the new game "worse than slot machine gambling," said such expansion of state-sanctioned gambling was "totally inappropriate" without legislative consultation and vowed to try to stop funding for it in the coming year's budget.

* Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said he believes it may be too late or too costly to find an alternative to keno. But he said he and others intend to push for legislation that would divert at least one-half of 1 percent of the keno revenue for the purpose of counseling and treating compulsive gamblers.

The state Senate's Finance Committee plans to hold a hearing next week on an array of issues related to keno, including its impact on businesses, horse racing and the social fabric of the state.

Page Boinest, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's press secretary, said the administration will cooperate fully, but she said legislators have known since September of the governor's plans to start a keno game as part of his plan to erase a $450 million budget deficit.

"Legislators sanctioned it in signing off on the budget-reduction plan," she said.

Mr. Curran, a potential Democratic candidate for governor in 1994, said in a letter to editors of The Sun that he disputed recent editorial characterizations that suggested he had " 'gone along' with the keno 'deal' [or] 'opted out' of the controversy." He said he was asked by state agencies about the legality of offering the new keno game, and did nothing more than advise them that keno could be started under the state's existing contract with the lottery vendor, GTECH Corp. of Rhode Island.

"It particularly irked me to read that I had given the keno contract my 'seal of approval,' " Mr. Curran said, noting that he has repeatedly voiced concern about the expansion of legalized gambling.

Two other Democrats who are potential candidates for governor in 1994, Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg and Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening, also have come out publicly against keno.

The new electronic, bingo-like game will be played in bars, restaurants and bowling alleys statewide beginning Jan. 4. It will operate from 6 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, permitting betting on a new game as frequently as every five minutes.

Other potential gubernatorial candidates queried about the keno game yesterday had different reactions.

Secretary of State Winfield M. Kelly Jr., a Democrat, said that gambling games are not his "No. 1 priority for raising revenues," but that in this case it was better than raising taxes or cutting more deeply into state programs.

The keno game was proposed as a way of raising an estimated $50 million this year and another $100 million next year.

William S. Shepard, the retired foreign service officer who was the Republican Party's unsuccessful candidate for governor in 1990, said the state's increasing reliance on gambling "is wrong. It's not the way you balance a budget." Like several of the other potential candidates for 1994, he said the money should be made up through cuts in state spending and general restructuring or downsizing of government.

Robert R. Neall, the Anne Arundel County executive whose name also has been mentioned as a possible GOP candidate in 1994, '' could not be immediately reached for comment. But a spokeswoman said Mr. Neall has "always had concerns about gambling as a source of revenue" and said that when he was a state legislator he sponsored a bill that created a gambling addictions' program within the health department.

As a practical matter, there does not appear to be much that legislators can do about the new keno game, at least in the short run.

Start-up costs will be appropriated through a budget amendment process that provides legislators with a 45-day review period, but no veto authority. Even if lawmakers waited until the 45th day, the State Lottery Agency could still get the keno game started on time with other funds, state officials say.

Legislation stopping the game is also theoretically possible, but the General Assembly does not convene its 1993 session until nine days after keno is to begin. Even then, such legislation would have to be passed much more quickly than is customary, would probably then be vetoed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer and then would have to receive three-fifths majorities in both houses to override the veto.

In addition, the state would then have to come up with $50 million in higher taxes or deeper budget cuts to cover the lost keno revenue. House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, has said he is not interested in listening to keno opponents who do not have such a proposal that has a chance of passage.

The third way keno could be stopped is if the General Assembly cuts whatever money Mr. Schaefer requests to finance keno during the 1994 budget year. That is the direction Senator Cade hopes to take.

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