What to do about keno?

December 17, 1992

Members of the Senate Finance Committee clearly don't lik the new keno gambling game the Schaefer administration is rushing to implement. Yet there's little they can do to stop it.

During a five-hour hearing this week -- the first true public hearing on this vast expansion of legalized gambling in Maryland -- most committee members expressed skepticism about the keno system and the no-bid, $49 million contract the Lottery Agency awarded to its prime vendor, GTECH, to implement what it calls "Club Keno." What they can do at this stage, though, is debatable.

Thomas P. O'Reilly, the committee chairman, said after the hearing there would likely be legislation introduced in January to abolish the controversial game. Opposition to keno could be widespread in the General Assembly, since Gov. William Donald Schaefer excluded lawmakers from the decision-making process, kept details of the deal private until the last minute and now intends to offer the frenetic numbers game at hundreds of bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and fast-food joints every five minutes, 18 hours a day.

The trouble is that by the time state legislators act to ban keno, it will be operating in 1,600 locations. By then, the state's investment in the game will be considerable. Also, Mr. Schaefer intends to balance both this year's and next year's budgets with the help of keno revenue. He's counting on $50 million this year and $100 million next year.

Even if the governor's revenue estimates are wildly optimistic -- as the legislature's own fiscal analysts maintain -- lawmakers would have to find ways to balance the budget without keno. That won't be easy. Killing keno could mean big cuts in other agency budgets.

Still, Mr. O'Reilly and other lawmakers who raised valid concerns about the keno transaction should proceed with their efforts to rein-in the Lottery Agency. Such a major expansion of gambling should never have proceeded without legislative input. Certainly keno never should have been approved without a full public debate and discussion of the many troubling issues it raises. Keno is an addictive game that will prey on the poor and those who can ill afford to get hooked on a state-sanctioned and heavily state-promoted sucker game.

We are also concerned that keno will divert millions away from the Maryland economy. Instead of spending money on goods and services that benefit and stimulate local businesses, keno players will be handing their dollars over to the Lottery Agency in the hope of hitting a longshot jackpot of $100,000. Some of the money will come back to players, but much of it will wind up in the state treasury as the tax it is, or with GTECH, a Rhode Island concern. The local economic spin-off will be modest. Keno clearly is a loser.

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