The question of whether to allow keno in the city’s bars could return to the ballot in Keene’s November elections.
N.H. Lottery Director Charles McIntyre asked a City Council committee Thursday night to put it to Keene voters again, despite its failure by a 2-1 margin in 2017. None of the Elm City’s five wards approved the measure.
“I know it didn’t pass the first time,” McIntyre said. “I often reference that lottery failed 10 years in a row before it was passed, so it sometimes takes a while for an idea to take hold.”
The finance, organization and personnel committee voted 4-1 Thursday to recommend placing keno on the ballot for the Nov. 8 elections. Councilor Terry M. Clark dissented. If the City Council approves the measure next week, a public hearing will be held Oct. 17.
Lawmakers legalized the bingo-like electronic game two years ago but left it up to cities and towns to approve it within their borders, which 84 communities have done so far. Locally, that includes Charlestown, Fitzwilliam, Hinsdale, Jaffrey, Swanzey, Troy and Winchester.
To host keno, a business that holds a liquor license can apply for a separate license that comes with a $500 annual fee. In exchange, the business keeps 8 percent of the proceeds from their games.
Another 1 percent of the revenue goes to the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services “to support research, prevention, intervention, and treatment services for problem gamblers,” according to state statute.
Minus administrative costs and prize payouts, the remainder is deposited into an education trust fund. Beginning in fiscal year 2019, the state’s education department used the keno revenue to raise funding for full-day kindergarten programs by $1,100 per student. That’s slated to gradually increase, up to $1,800 in following years, if revenues are sufficient.
Every community receives the spike in education funding, regardless of whether it approved keno or not.
Supporters of the law tout that it’s an alternative way to bring more funds into education while potentially easing the burden on taxpayers locally.
Opponents say the benefits don’t outweigh the drawbacks. Voters at the polls in Keene’s ward 5 told The Sentinel in 2017 that the measure encourages gambling and doesn’t fix the long-term problem of declining state education funding.
McIntyre, the lottery director, emphasized that the game isn’t a late-night habit for most players, noting that more tickets are sold at 2 than at 10 p.m.
“Our biggest hours are between 5 and 7 [p.m.], so most folks are playing while they’re eating dinner, and having a sandwich and a beer,” he said.
N.H. Lottery commissioned the University of New Hampshire to survey businesses with keno, McIntyre said, and more than 75 percent of bars that responded reported an increase in business of up to 30 percent after offering the game.
“Folks just stay on average up to 37 mins longer, have … a dessert, have another beer, and then they play,” he said.
Mayor Kendall W. Lane asked if anything has changed with the keno program that would make it more appealing to voters this time around.
McIntyre noted that many opponents expressed concerns of increases in unseemly or criminal activity at bars where keno would be approved.
“I can tell you in the last year and a half we’ve had it, we’ve had zero problems. You know —” McIntyre paused to knock on the wooden table.
Some businesses were in a “wait and see” mentality before, he added, and are now asking for keno after seeing the potential benefits.
At one point in Thursday’s committee meeting, Councilor and committee Chairman Mitchell H. Greenwald clarified that recommending the ballot measure is not an endorsement of keno.
“... All that we’re doing is saying, put it on the ballot, let the public choose,” he said.
The full City Council meets Thursday at 7 p.m. and is slated to vote on this measure, among others. Unlike committee meetings, there is no public comment at council meetings, but if the measure’s approved, residents could offer input at the aforementioned public hearing Oct. 17.