Editorial: State shouldn’t gamble on keno
Last week, the House Ways and Means Committee agreed to ask the Legislature to legalize two forms of gambling. One decision was the right call; the other was a potential disaster for vulnerable residents and New Hampshire’s family-friendly image.
The committee unanimously agreed to legalize playing poker for money in private homes as long as the games weren’t advertised and “the house” charged no fee or otherwise profited from serving as host. The vote was an overdue recognition of a reality that lawmakers should embrace. The existing law is widely ignored, viewed as a silly prohibition and rarely if every enforced.
The committee also, by a vote of 14-5, recommended passage of a bill legalizing keno, a fast-paced electronic form of bingo in restaurants and bars. The sweepstakes commission, which would regulate keno, estimates that 250 restaurants and bars would agree to host the machines, which would by 2017 raise about $9 million per year for the state. That’s small money for a step toward casino gambling, one that would create cheesy, mini-casinos that introduce computer-era kids to the sight of adults glued to the video screen of a machine that takes their money.
In keno, gamblers place a bet (usually $10 or less) that some, all, or in one variation none, of the five or so numbers they pick from a field of 80 will be selected using balls in a hopper or a random-number generating machine. The game has many variations but typically allows players to make a new wager every four or five minutes. That means small losses can add up quickly. The bar or restaurant would keep 8 percent of the take from each machine. Seventy percent is paid out as winnings, and the state gets the rest.
As with revenue from the state’s lotteries, the money raised would go toward funding public education. But there is little or no real gain for public schools. Instead, the gambling revenue merely reduces the amount lawmakers have to raise by other means to fund education. Saying the money is for the kids makes it easier to support a regressive levy that creates problem gamblers.
About a dozen states have legalized keno machines, including Massachusetts, and several more are considering bills to do so. As tends to be the way, the beneficiaries of gambling revenue prove to be even more susceptible to addiction than players. To boost the take for state treasuries, some states have increased the number of permitted keno machines, increased the time they are allowed to operate – the New Hampshire bill says 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. – or increased the pace of play, say from one game every six minutes to one every four. The faster the pace, the more likely gambling addiction will result.
Studies of the impact of keno gaming appear to be few, but a notable one conducted in New York state in the 1990s discovered that when first introduced the games were played almost exclusively by white males; within just three years, two-thirds of the players were minorities. Since losing is even more of a certainty in keno than in most casino games, keno tends to take money away from people who can least afford to lose it.
Preventing minors from playing, particularly when machines are installed in family venues like restaurants, may be difficult. In a sting conducted by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, two-thirds of the minors who participated were able to place a keno bet in one of the 90 sites visited. And even when kids don’t play, from an early age, they get to watch as their parents excitedly gamble away their money.
The House should reject the keno bill.