Keno's survival odds soar as legislative attack fails Senate panel's attempt to delay game beaten by group eyeing keno revenue

December 23, 1992|By Marina Sarris and Laura Lippman | Marina Sarris and Laura Lippman,Staff Writers

The odds just got better that Maryland's controversial keno lottery game will debut as scheduled Jan. 4.

Yesterday, an influential panel of lawmakers defeated a Senate Finance Committee attempt to delay the launch of the game, and Gov. William Donald Schaefer announced that keno's proceeds could help keep 1,900 nursing home patients from losing their medical benefits.

Mr. Schaefer said he now feels he can scrap a plan to cut those patients from the medical assistance program -- but only if keno goes forward and the economy remains stable. "Let me stress we can only do this if the revenue picture, including plans for moving ahead with keno, stays the same and doesn't get worse," the governor said.

As Mr. Schaefer was speaking, a committee of House and Senate leaders voted not to ask him to delay the game's start. The delay had been proposed by the Senate Finance Committee so the General Assembly could review keno and hold a public hearing. The move failed yesterday by a 6-11 vote in the joint Legislative Policy Committee as House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. and his lieutenants contended that the state has no other way to solve its budget problems.

"What do we do in its place?" asked House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, a Washington County Democrat. "If not keno, what?"

Governor Schaefer proposed keno in September as part of a $450 million plan to reduce the state budget deficit. Keno gambling is expected to raise $50 million for the state from January through June.

The fast-paced numbers game is to be played in hundreds of bars, taverns and restaurants statewide. Keno features new drawings every five minutes from 6 a.m. to midnight.

Speaker Mitchell, a frequent Schaefer ally, said the Senate Finance Committee should have proposed budget alternatives before asking legislative leaders to oppose keno. The Finance Committee's chairman, Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, shot back by saying such alternatives could be developed if keno were put on hold. He predicted keno will be unstoppable once it begins in two weeks.

"Once we start keno, there is no turning back," said Mr. O'Reilly, a Prince George's County Democrat. "This keno gambling, Clay, is the most aggressive form of gambling you can imagine."

Mr. Mitchell -- who got important support from the governor in his recent battle to remain speaker -- and the other delegates on the joint committee picked up two votes from the Senate. Siding with the delegates were Sens. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, chairman, and Barbara A. Hoffman, D-City, vice chairwoman, of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

At his news conference, Governor Schaefer said a slowdown in the number of people receiving medical assistance enabled him to plan on abolishing the proposed cuts to nursing home patients. Medicaid rolls are running 20,000 short of the projected enrollment of 472,000 Marylanders, he said.

Under the initial proposal, anyone with a monthly income of more than $1,055 would have stopped being eligible for Medicaid coverage for long-term care, even though nursing home fees can exceed $3,000 monthly. The proposed cut would not have affected the extremely poor and the rich. But middle-class patients who didn't have the money could risk being discharged.

State Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini said that while Mr. Schaefer plans on scrapping the nursing home proposal, the governor could have to revive it in this budget year or next, should revenue estimates worsen. The nursing home proposal accounted for $7 million of the $65.3 million the health department slashed from its budget during the last round of state cuts. Money saved by the overall drop in Medicaid enrollment, combined with money from keno, will make up the $7 million, officials said.

Some state legislators expressed concern yesterday that Mr. Schaefer's revised thinking about the nursing home cuts -- which were vigorously protested by patients and their families -- represented only a short-term solution. "If the state falls short of revenues again, or the number of people on Medicaid goes up, we could be in the same situation," said Del. Virginia M. Thomas, a Howard County Democrat.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the nursing home issue generated more mail than any single issue on which she has worked since being elected to the legislature in 1978.

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