New Hampshire cities take up keno questions

Monitor staff
Friday, August 11, 2017

The Nov. 7 election may be months away, but cities around the state are already feeling the time crunch when it comes to keno.

Franklin came out of the gate fast, becoming the first city to put keno on the ballot Monday after the New Hampshire Lottery Commission gave a presentation on the game’s supposed benefits to communities. Dover, Nashua and Manchester have begun discussions as well, while Nashua and Manchester plan to vote on the measure next week.

Concord’s city council will take up the keno question Monday night but has taken a more cautious approach. City Manager Tom Aspell said the council plans to hold at least one public hearing on whether keno should appear on the ballot, and another if they vote to do so. According to Aspell, ballots for the election must be printed by Sept. 18.

Time is of the essence, Aspell noted, as municipalities must put the keno question to a ballot vote during municipal elections. If a city government chooses not to put keno on the ballot – and a petition warrant article doesn’t appear – they have to wait until next year to change their minds.

“It certainly seems like the state is pushing this,” Aspell said. “If anything is going to happen, it has to happen quickly.”

At least two members of the state Legislature and Concord community, however, aren’t so sure going headlong into keno is a good idea – especially when the additional cash the Lottery Commission promises will go toward full-day kindergarten and businesses isn’t guaranteed.

“I’m just not sure it’s the best fit for Concord,” said Steve Shurtleff, city councilor at large and leader of the New Hampshire House Democrats. “I would want to know more about it to make sure it’s the right vote for the city.”

Shurtleff said he voted for Senate Bill 191, which legalized the game as a way to raise additional money for full-day kindergarten, as well as increase the amount of funding for communities offering full-day kindergarten by $1,100. But he said he was uncertain about the details of the game and what its impact could be.

Shurtleff said there was no need for Concord to jump into the keno fray right away, especially since the city decided not to go forward with full-day kindergarten this year.

“Regardless of whether the community votes for keno, the fact that the bill (SB 191) passed means Concord has already won,” Shurtleff said.

The Lottery Commission has said the game could raise $9 million in revenue, about as much as the $1,100-per-student proposal would cost the state at current enrollments.

The commission also claims businesses will see the benefit of the game in increased food and beverage sales and will have the chance to earn an 8 percent commission on every dollar from the KENO 603 game. They can also earn a bonus for selling a KENO 603 prize of $10,000 and greater than or equal to 1 percent of the prize capped at $75,000.

But state Sen. Andy Sanborn, a Bedford Republican, owner of The Draft Sports Bar & Grill in Concord and candidate for the 1st Congressional District, said he disagrees.

“The state is going to pay for full-day kindergarten, regardless of whether keno is adopted anywhere,” he said. “There’s no guarantee that additional funding is going to exist.

“It caused people to vote against their own values to get something they wanted, whether it was keno or funding for full-day kindergarten. I don’t think that’s how we should be legislating,” he added”

Sanborn also disagreed with the premise of all municipalities receiving keno funding, regardless of whether they adopted the game or not.

“It’s really contrary to what the Claremont lawsuit was all about, which was education funding equality,” he said. “This is just going to pit communities against each other.”

Sanborn, who did not vote for SB 191, said he was skeptical his restaurant would see any benefit from the game.

“You only have so many seats in a restaurant – some would suggest that if people come in to play keno, you can only really sell them one or two beers before they can’t drink anymore,” Sanborn said. “So then they’re going to be sitting there, drinking water and playing keno, and not buying anything. That ties up a seat, and in order to make money, you have to turn tables.”

Regardless, Sanborn said he wasn’t concerned The Draft would be out-kenoed by Concord competition.

“My personal belief is that Concord is relatively anti-gaming,” he said. “I think they’ll rely on southern cities to adopt it.”

Nashua alderman at large Brian McCarthy said he agrees. He said one of the biggest concerns Nashua’s aldermen had while discussing keno earlier this week was whether the city would see all the burdens of gambling without any benefits. With 8 percent of the state’s population, Nashua generates 15 percent of the state’s lottery sales, he said.

“The state argued that the highest volume of keno users is along the southern border between us and Massachusetts, so in some ways if people are going to do it, they might as well do it here and get us the food and beverage sales,” McCarthy said. “But if we’re going to see a lot of keno without a lot of benefits, that doesn’t really seem fair.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ActualCAndrews.)