Keno lottery to start today with little fanfare Furor provided enough publicity

January 04, 1993|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Staff Writer

Numbers from 1 to 80 will be popping up on video monitors at hundreds of bars, restaurants and other outlets across Maryland today.

The numbers will signal the arrival of the state's keno lottery game, which is making its debut at 600 locations after weeks of controversy over the way the contract was awarded and the reliance on revenue from expanded gambling to balance the state budget.

So widespread has been the furor that the State Lottery Agency is launching keno with a minimum of promotion. This contrasts with the blizzard of ads that accompanied last month's $10 million el Gordo drawing.

"Since we have received so much advance publicity, the agency has decided it is not necessary to implement our advertising campaign at this time. We feel that almost everyone in the state knows that keno will begin [today]," the Lottery Agency said in a statement.

Starting at 6 a.m. and ending at midnight, a new keno game will run every five minutes at bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and other licensed outlets in every county and in Baltimore. Players will pick 10 numbers from 1 to 80, attempting to match them against the 20 numbers the computer spits out for each game. Players may choose to match as few as two or as many as 10 numbers in each game and may play up to 20 games in a row.

The game, played by filling out a computerized "game slip," will have a minimum bet of $1 and a maximum of $20. The payoff will range from $2 to $100,000; the game returns 56 cents of each dollar wagered to the players.

The attention given to keno is not likely to diminish once the electronic bingo-like game gets under way.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said last week, "Certainly there's going to be legislation introduced to limit keno" in this year's session of the General Assembly, which will begin Jan. 13.

But the Prince George's County Democrat, who said he personally opposes keno, expressed skepticism about the chances of enacting a bill that would outlaw the game throughout the state.

Realistically, Mr. Miller said, a bill that might pass both houses and avoid a veto, if the governor were to become "more reflective," is one that would ban keno in the Ocean City resort. "Beyond that, there are major fiscal considerations that come into play."

In the House, Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, reiterated last week that he would press for state funds for the treatment of compulsive gamblers. But the Baltimore Democrat said he could not support efforts to stop the game if the alternative is further state cuts in social programs.

"My problem is that recent budget cuts have been devastating )) to poor people. If budget cuts continue to be of that magnitude, I would support keno when given the choice of eliminating significant services that help special populations," he said.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer proposed the computer-generated numbers game in September as part of a plan to address a $450 million budget shortfall. He has defended it as the only practical means to avoid further drastic cuts in social programs. The state hopes to net about $50 million, from a projected $155 million in keno sales, in the first six months of 1993. But legislative budget analysts predict that the state will take in about half that.

While the General Assembly grapples with keno, the Lottery Agency must respond by Jan. 22 to a lawsuit in Worcester County Circuit Court by Ocean City officials who want to block keno there because they feel it would tarnish the town's reputation as a family resort.

Meanwhile, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, Richard D. Bennett, is asking a federal grand jury to look into the state's awarding of millions of dollars in lottery contracts to GTECH Corp., a Rhode Island computer firm. Included in the proposed probe is the 3 1/2 -year, $49 million contract to run keno that was awarded without competitive bidding.

Among the prominent public officials who have come out against keno are Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening and U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest.

The Lottery Agency had originally predicted that outlets would achieve an average of $3,000 each in keno sales during the first week of the game and would take in $5,000 a week by March. How the publicity and firestorm of criticism may affect sales is something the agency is not willing to predict.

"It's really hard to gauge people's reactions. We have to just wait and see," said Lottery Agency spokeswoman Elyn Garrett-Jones.

One restaurant owner who had agreed to offer keno, beginning today, has changed his mind because of the controversy.

"With the public hue and outcry, I want to see which way the sands shift. I'm not out to ruffle any feathers," said Don Friedman, owner of Gampy's restaurant in the Mount Vernon section of Baltimore.

Some establishments have put off displaying the "point of sale" signs and brochures announcing the coming of keno that lottery officials had been counting on to generate enthusiasm.

"We haven't advertised we're going to have it because we weren't sure it was going to happen," said Fred Rosenthal, co-owner of Jasper's restaurant in Pikesville.

But others feel the controversy over keno won't hurt sales.

"Most of the people have been curious. I've gotten comments like, 'It'll be fun,' " said Jerry Watson, general manager of the Baja Beach Club in downtown Baltimore.

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