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Connecticut officials wage press release battle over Keno

HARTFORD, Conn. – In what could be called the battle of the press releases, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and Gov. Jodi Rell are duking it out over a proposal to introduce Keno in Connecticut to raise state revenues.

The Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling also made a guest appearance on the battlefield.

On May 28, the Republican governor proposed setting up Keno games across the state to help plug a projected $8 billion deficit over the next two years. Rell’s budget office projected that the new state-sponsored game would generate $60 million in revenue each year for the general fund.

Democratic legislators immediately sought a legal opinion from Blumenthal, also a Democrat.

“Gov. Rell has released a revised budget. In that budget proposal, she has recommended legalizing Keno. Myself and several legislators have been holding ongoing discussions on this issue. Now that the governor has proposed legalizing Keno, we need your opinion on two matters: Is Keno considered a lottery game? Will legalizing Keno affect the state’s compact with the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Tribes?” Rep. Stephen Dargan, co-chairman of the Public Safety and Security Committee which oversees gambling, wrote to Blumenthal.

The Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling also sent out a press release opposing Rell’s proposal. “The proposal is born of desperate thinking and is likely to create more problems than it solves.”

The council cited a federal study that recommends, among other things, a moratorium on “these forms of gambling until their safety can be proven.” The release also noted that there is evidence that Keno is a kind of gateway gambling that leads to other electronic games.

On June 1, Blumenthal issued his response to the legislators in a press release warning that Rell’s proposal could risk losing the more than $400 million given to the state each year by the Mohegan Tribe and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation from slot revenues at the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino, respectively. The tribal-state compacts provide the state with 25 percent of slot machine proceeds.

Blumenthal urged legislators to amend the state’s “memoranda of understanding” with the tribal nations before attempting to legalize Keno. He said the law is unclear and courts are divided on the issue of whether Keno is considered a lottery game, and that Rell’s proposal is unspecific about the type and structure of Keno gaming contemplated.

“In short, in this situation, there is no clarity in the statute, no ruling from our state courts, no unanimity in other state courts, and most important, no relevant specific facts as to the operation and structure of the proposed game, or even what type is proposed,” Blumenthal wrote in his opinion. “Concluding whether the proposed Keno is a lottery game would be more a guess than a legal analysis.”

Not so, Rell responded in a release hours after Blumenthal’s.

“There should be no question that Keno can be introduced as a lottery game – indeed, during the 2005 dispute over the ‘PlayAway’ game offered by Foxwoods Resort Casino, the attorney general described Keno as ‘a lottery-type game.’ At least 14 other states play the game, including Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York.”

As for risking the more than $400 million from the Indian casinos, Rell said she “always intended to make sure we proceed in a way that honors and protects Connecticut’s long-standing relationship with the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes while establishing a new and much-needed revenue stream for our state.”

And with a nod to the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling Rell said the state would also ensure that “Keno is marketed and played in our state in a safe and responsible manner, including recognition of the risks of problem gambling.”

The nations also issued press releases responding in a non-committal way to all the press releases.

“We have not reviewed the Keno proposal and at this time are unable to comment on either the proposal or the attorney general’s statement,” Mashantucket said.

Mohegan Tribal Council Chairman Bruce “Two Dogs” Bozsum said the council will consider the proposal after its legal team has reviewed “the final language and the state’s definition of this new game,” – a document which at this point does not exist.

“The Mohegan Tribe has always felt that communication and cooperation, when possible, between our governments is critical and we look forward to hearing more about this proposal so we can properly respond.”

Last month, a bill generated by Blumenthal proposing a total ban on smoking at the casinos was defeated after Rell reached an agreement with the nations on a plan to reduce and eventually phase out smoking at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, and a legislative committee failed to act on the bill before a deadline.