As the state installs keno, opposition grows

December 30, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

While work crews hustle to set up the first phase of the State Lottery Agency's electronic keno network, opposition to the new numbers game continues to grow.

A congressman, a comptroller and a county council are among the latest to speak out against the game, which has become the most controversial part of a $450 million plan by Gov. William Donald Schaefer to balance Maryland's ailing budget.

Despite the most recent outcry, lottery officials said, the installation of keno terminals is on schedule for the game's debut Monday in 600 locations across the state.

"Our crews are working so fast at this point they're not sure exactly how many we have installed," Elyn Garrett-Jones, lottery spokeswoman, said. "But there's no doubt we're going to meet the 600 start-up figure."

Maryland Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, a member of the state board that approved the keno contract Dec. 2, said yesterday that he now has reservations about whether the panel voted wisely.

"I don't believe the state of Maryland should rely on gambling proceeds to operate government," Mr. Goldstein said.

U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest also has come out against the game. In a letter sent to the governor and every member of the state legislature last week, the 1st District congressman urged lawmakers to study the "generally negative impact of gambling" before allowing keno to begin.

And the day before Christmas, the Talbot County Council sent a letter to Mr. Schaefer denouncing keno as a way to raise state revenue and requesting that Talbot businesses be excluded from participating.

Keno is an electronic numbers game that will feature drawings every five minutes from 6 a.m. to midnight. Mr. Schaefer proposed the game in September as a way of raising $50 million in the current budget year, which ends June 30. Once the first 600 keno outlets are operating smoothly, hundreds of others are to follow.

The game drew little attention until after the state Board of Public Works approved a $49 million contract with GTECH Corp. of Rhode Island, the firm that handles the state's paper lottery games.

When the board was considering GTECH as the only vendor for the keno contract, Mr. Goldstein said, he was told by lottery officials that the company was the only one capable of setting up and operating the game by early January.

Since then, several other lottery companies have complained that they were not allowed to bid.

Mr. Goldstein said yesterday that he inquired about other potential vendors but was assured by the lottery that only GTECH was qualified.

"If I had all the information I asked for," he said, "I doubt if I would have voted for it."

Despite Mr. Goldstein's change of heart, the controversial contract continues to have the support of a majority of the three-member board.

State Treasurer Lucille Maurer said yesterday that while she does not favor state-sponsored gambling, she felt the board was being asked to vote on a narrower issue: whether to approve a contract with GTECH. She said she continues to believe the contract was appropriate.

The third member of the board is Governor Schaefer, who has steadfastly defended both the contract and his decision to launch keno.

Mr. Gilchrest, a Republican from the Eastern Shore, said his letter to state lawmakers was a reminder that many voters in the rural congressional district are opposed to gambling as a way to raise money. Ocean City officials filed suit last week in an attempt to block keno. A judge has given the Lottery Agency until Jan. 22 to respond.

"I don't like to stick my nose in state business," Mr. Gilchrest said. "But in a situation like this, we were motivated to do it because we represent people in the 1st District."

Talbot County Council President Clinton S. Bradley III said the council is sympathetic to the state's revenue problems, but does not believe it is good policy to allow keno to be played where alcohol is served.

"All of us think there's some danger in having these kinds of machines in places where people drink," he said. "They could blow their whole weekly paycheck."

Acknowledging that the council's letter to the governor was unlikely to prevent the start of keno statewide, Mr. Bradley said council members are "considering" changing local liquor rules to prohibit gambling in businesses that serve alcohol.

A spokesman for Governor Schaefer, Joseph L. Harrison Jr., said yesterday that the latest round of anti-keno sentiment failed to offer other ways of raising $50 million.

"Lacking any alternatives, keno is moving forward and will open as scheduled on Jan. 4," he said.

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