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Politics

LePage Administration's Plan to Expand Gambling Meets Legislative Resistance

AUGUSTA, Maine - The state Lottery Commission has plans to allow the lottery-style game "keno" in as many as 150 locations around Maine. But some lawmakers in Augusta say that such a major expansion of gambling requires legislative approval, and they are moving to block the commission until they can act on the issue.

The game of keno is offered in 15 states that have a lottery, the closest being Massachusetts. The Maine State Lottery Commission plans a system that will be similar to the Massachusetts game, with playing locations tied to a central computer.

The players select from 1 to 12 numbers for each game, and then the computer randomly chooses 20 winning numbers from 1 to 80 and displays them on a keno monitor. Winning numbers would be drawn about every four minutes. Finance Commissioner Richard Rosen says it’s not really all that different from the so-called pick four or pick five lottery games that Maine offers now.

"The Lottery has introduced, and refreshes and proposes and moves forward with, a variety of different games," Rosen said. "This would be another game that would be in that portfolio."

But members of both parties on the Legislature’s Veterans and legal Affairs Committee take a different view, after learning that the commission plans to implement a Keno system with as many as 300 terminals in 150 locations. Republican Sen. Scott Cyrway of Benton co-chairs the committee.

"That put up red flags," he says. "Now, really, this large an operation, it really should be put to a halt and they should go through the process."

Cyrway and Democratic state Rep. Louis Luchini, of Ellsworth, the House co-chair of the committee, went to the Legislative Council made up of the 10 elected leaders of the Legislature, and got approval for a bill to block the keno plan until the Legislature can review it. Luchini says he's not alone in wanting a second look.

"I kind of took the lead on putting the bill, the paperwork," Luchini says, "but I think many people share concerns, or just have questions that they would like answered before they weigh in for or against. I think people are still open-minded, but they would like answers to some questions first."

And Cyrway says some of the questions that the Lottery Commission has answered raise new questions. For example, lottery terminals are currently in gas stations, convenience stores and large grocery chains. The keno terminals, according to the commission, would also be in bars and restaurants, and other locations that Cyrway says are not spelled out.

"I asked, you know, 'What about where are you going to put them?' And I said, 'Are you going to put one at Acadia, at Jordan Pond or whatever?' " Cyrway says. "They said, 'No we wouldn’t do that, but maybe Bar Harbor.' "

Luchini says he and other committee members are also concerned about the economic impact the expanded gambling would have on various non-profit groups that operate games such as Beano. He says those groups should have a chance to publicly testify on the potential impact so lawmakers can weigh the policy change.

"I think that the way it is going to be rolled out, it almost certainly will affect charitable games and non-profit games," Luchini says. "It seems like it could cannibalize into their players."

The panel is considering several gaming bills this session that would expand gaming, including one that would allow non-profit groups to operate a few slot machines. They also are reviewing a study about how to site any future casinos in the state.

As for the keno proposal, Rosen says no revenue estimates have been completed, but based on what other states receive, it could be a multi-million dollar a year game once fully underway.