Keno's Calamity

July 27, 1993

When any state relies heavily on gambling revenue, you live by the sword and you die by the sword.

. -- Del. Howard P. Rawlings

Keno is a killer. It is killing the hopes of officials that this fast-paced numbers game would produce a bonanza for state coffers. And it is destroying the lives of countless Marylanders lured into excessive gambling on this addictive lottery game.

Since its start in January, keno has proved a big disappointment. Even with new outlets added weekly, the electronic game has fallen 43 percent short of revenue projections. That created a $28 million hole in last fiscal year's budget and could leave a hole twice that size in the current budget. On top of that, keno is hurting other lottery games, further lowering state revenue. Maryland's venture into keno is doing more harm than good.

Even more profound is the damage to Marylanders hooked on keno. The National Center for Pathological Gambling has received dozens of calls from men and women addicted by their desire to play fast-paced keno. They often lose their pay checks, their savings and their families in the process.

This is a human tragedy ignored by the powers in Annapolis. Keno is designed to appeal to middle-class Marylanders. It is operating in over 2,000 locations. The state is actively encouraging people to start playing the game -- again and again and again -- every five minutes, 18 hours a day.

No wonder the gambling hot line is busy. The lottery agency is pressing other retailers to install keno and is spending $500,000 on an advertising blitz to persuade more people that keno is socially acceptable -- and profitable. Meanwhile, race-track owners are rushing to open off-track betting parlors with dozens of new gambling opportunities day and night. There's one already in Frederick County -- across from a lot where a high school is planned -- and another in Cecil County.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer made a serious mistake when he launched keno. He did it for the money. State legislators also stumbled in sanctioning keno. They, too, did it for the money. But keno isn't producing that pot of gold. Instead, it is destroying the hopes and dreams of Marylanders. As House Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings put it, "At some point, we're going to regret this strong budgetary reliance on gambling revenues." But by then, the damage will have been done to hundreds of households.

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