In unanimous vote, Senate votes to take Keno out of ‘kenogarten’

  • Ron Reinke examines his Keno betting slip at Tony K's in Berea, Ohio Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008. The fast-paced Ohio Lottery game that was expected to help plug the gaping hole in the state budget is off to a slow start, hindered by a weak economy and difficulty getting it established at 2,000 bars and restaurants. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan) Mark Duncan

Monitor staff
Published: 3/14/2019 5:33:17 PM

The New Hampshire Senate voted unanimously to extract Keno from full-day kindergarten funding Thursday, in a rebuke of one of Gov. Chris Sununu’s major legislative victories of 2017.

In short fashion, and with little discussion, the body chamber came together behind Senate Bill 266, opting to direct Keno revenues to school building aid instead. The bill would instead make the state pay schools the full adequacy amount for full-time kindergartners, treating them as equal to students in other grades.

Operated by the state Lottery Commission, Keno is a small-dollar, bingo-like screen game in which contestants bet on numbers displayed on machines in bars and restaurants. It was authorized in New Hampshire as a way to help fund a portion of the cost of full-day kindergarten, after decades in which the state only paid schools for a half day of instruction.

To date, nearly 200 towns and cities across the state have authorized Keno machines, including an additional 16 towns after Tuesday’s town meetings, according to the governor’s office.

But testimony from members of both sides of the aisle indicated that the “kenogarten” bill, which passed with bipartisan support in 2017 had always been an uneasy compromise.

“I never was a Keno supporter,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican who served as Senate President when the Keno bill was first passed. “I did it to get kindergarten in the budget.”

Still Morse and other Republicans stressed that their vote for the bill – which heads next to the Senate Finance Committee – did not represent absolute support. The extra spending contemplated in the bill, they said, should be balanced against other priorities when the budget is negotiated by the Senate.

“I think we all support kindergarten,” said Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley, of Wolfeboro. “But there are a lot of other things. Mental health, DCYF, substance abuse.”

Democrats have long been vocal about their discomfort with Keno, pushing to fully fund kindergarten using the state’s educational trust fund, which funds all other grades.

The proposal would drastically overhaul a program that’s still fighting to get off the ground. Under the present law, the state pays a minimum $1800 per kindergarten student – half the adequacy rate – plus an additional $1100 per student added by the “Kenogarten” bill. That amounts to about $2,900, or about 80 percent of the $3,600 base adequacy amount given to students in other grades.

In other words, under the present law, the state pays at minimum 80 percent for full-day kindergarteners of what they would pay for a first grader.

To provide the final $1100 to schools, revenues from Keno would have to surpass certain benchmarks. So far, they have not done that. Due to several high-profile rejections in populous towns and cities, as well as the high payout and low profitability of the game compared to other Lottery Commission games such as scratch tickets, the amount raised by Keno has come far below the amount necessary to sustain the program on its own.

Despite $23 million in total sales, just $2 to $3 million a year has been returned to help pay for full-day kindergarten, according to figures from the Commission.

Proposed by Dover Sen. David Watters, a Democrat, SB 266 would require an additional $15 million a year to head to schools to fully fund kindergarten, according to the Department of Education.

A spokesman for Sununu said the governor was not necessarily opposed to the proposed change.

“Govern or Sununu has always been supportive of fully-funding full-day kindergarten so long as the plan is fiscally responsible and does not raise taxes on New Hampshire families,” spokesman Ben Vihstadt said after the vote. “Governor Sununu looks forward to working with the legislature to accomplishing this goal.”

And Bradley said that the bipartisan support for the bill now does not necessarily indicate that the bill itself will proceed. More likely, he predicted, the bill would be tabled and the changes within in transplanted into budget negotiations.

Feltes, the Majority Leader, said it was unclear whether Senate leadership would take that path. But Thursday’s vote was an indication of what members of both parties could support, he argued.

“Governor Sununu’s budget again underfunds kindergarten,” he said. “I hope that this bipartisan vote sends a clear message that we’re going to treat kindergarteners the same.”

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