In a surprise, Gov. Dannel Malloy and state legislators are dropping keno gambling from the state budget at a time when the projected surplus is shrinking and the state is scrambling for money.
The announcement came Thursday night as both Republicans and Democrats held caucuses and the word spread among insiders at the state Capitol. Applause broke out in the closed-door House Democratic caucus when the announcement was made, legislators said.
Keno, a bingo-like gambling game that is played at casinos and through state lotteries, returned to the spotlight Thursday as a potential revenue generator because the state budget surplus has suddenly crashed from more than $500 million down to only $43 million. Some key Democrats supported keno because it would generate an estimated $18 million in the next fiscal year for the state and then $26 million in the following year.
But legislators said the Malloy administration stepped into the talks Thursday and opposed keno.
State legislators could now vote as early as Saturday on changes in the second year of the two-year budget, including officially removing keno from state law. Keno had been approved last year, but the games never began as opposition mounted among Republicans and anti-gambling advocates.
Some Democratic lawmakers said they had no problem with keno because it is played in the three surrounding states – New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. The game has been on a roller-coaster ride over the past year with alternating support and opposition that has been switching back and forth on a regular basis.
“I’m very happy they eliminated it from the budget,’’ said Rep. Steven Mikutel, a veteran House Democrat from Griswold. “I was against keno. We’re not that desperate that we need a major expansion of gambling just to raise $18 million. We don’t need this gambling culture to permeate every aspect of society. If you go to a restaurant, you shouldn’t be exposed to gambling.’’
Mikutel added: “If you can’t cut $18 million out of a $20 billion budget and eliminate keno, then you’re not doing your job. The Democrats didn’t want to wear this keno label, and I don’t think that’s what this party wants to be known for.’’
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, the most powerful lawmaker in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, said before Thursday night’s caucus that keno was “still very much in play’’ in an earlier version of the budget.
“I think most in our caucus feel that there is not a problem with it,’’ Sharkey told Capitol Watch in an interview before the announcement. “It’s just another lottery game. … Others are ambivalent, and then there are others who don’t like it at all.’’
House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, a Berlin Democrat, said, “I’m actually a keno fan. Our bordering states have it. The folks who want to gamble are already going to find a way to gamble. They can do it at the casino.’’
He added, “I don’t have a problem with it at all. I’d like it to be maintained in the budget.’’
State Rep. Stephen Dargan, a West Haven Democrat who co-chairs the committee that oversees gambling, had predicted in mid-February that keno would never be approved.
At the time, he said he had “a better chance of winning Powerball than seeing keno come to fruition.”