The N.H. Lottery Commission has been trying to add video poker or keno machines to the state’s gambling mix for years, but lawmakers have consistently shot down the idea. That is, until two years ago.
Keno is similar to bingo, with the player trying to match the numbers on a purchased card to those the Lottery Commission sends via a TV monitor. The action is fast and, studies indicate, highly addictive. A player can blow through a lot of money in a short time, even with betting limits.
Such machines are a particularly pernicious idea, as they are typically restricted to bars and restaurants. This means they specifically set the stage to fuel one addiction with another. Those under the influence of liquor are hardly in a position to make good decisions about how much of their paycheck to gamble away. It’s why casinos offer free drinks.
In 2017, the lottery found an in: Gov. Chris Sununu made full-day kindergarten a major priority and proposed adding funds to help communities expand their kindergarten offerings. His plan was to change the way kindergarten students are counted by the state to incentivize communities to implement full-day programs. The change would be to count those students the same as all other primary and secondary-school students; previously, kindergartners had counted for only half as much in terms of state education aid, on the assumption that they were only in school for half the day.
The Legislature agreed to change the definition — a laudable step — but tied the increased funding to the implementation of keno. Specifically, the deal worked out mandated that every community be allowed to vote on whether to allow keno machines in bars and restaurants. It was linked to the kindergarten funding, but not directly. The funding would still be increased, but a portion of the state’s keno take would also be added to the pot. So denying keno wouldn’t deprive a district of funding, but the more money the state makes from the game, the more each district can get.
Some area communities have voted to allow the game, but the arguments for it have been based less on benefiting kindergartners and more on boosting businesses that serve alcohol. Even then, not all bars and restaurants in those towns have chosen to add the machines.
In Keene, the call for more gambling has been pretty muted. The City Council put the question to voters two years ago and it failed miserably in all five wards.
At the time, we urged the councilors to support letting the voters decide the issue, and advised the voters to say no to keno. Its benefits — a relatively small increase in state aid that would make no difference in early childhood education here since full-day kindergarten is already in place — would be outweighed by the potential harm done to those with addiction issues and who can ill afford to wager too much. Yes, some establishments would see a small boost in business, but at too high a cost to the community.
Last week, urged again by the Lottery Commission, the council’s finance, organization and personnel committee voted to send the keno question back to the full City Council, where it’s due to be taken up on Thursday. The councilors should, again, agree to let the city’s voters decide the issue, though we again urge those voters to say no. Nothing has changed in the past two years on this issue.
It is worth noting N.H. Lottery Director Charles McIntyre, who stumped for the game before the council panel last week, made clear his agency’s game plan: patience. McIntyre told the councilors it took 10 straight years of votes before the state agreed to start a lottery at all. “It sometimes takes a while for an idea to take hold,” he said.
In other words, he’s willing to keep pressing the issue until it passes. We don’t really see why the dynamics of the issue would change to prompt such a conversion of attitude. More likely is the hope that the voters will simply be worn down, or that perhaps a temporary economic downturn will put more pressure on bar and restaurant owners, making it seem more palatable. In any case, the downsides remain.
If persistence is the state’s plan, maybe the council ought to explore limiting how often the question can go before voters here, in the interest of keeping it from becoming a nuisance.