Can we talk about keno?
I can't tell whether I'm just getting older and crankier or whether this is the most lowdown, sneaky, thief-in-the-night edition of the General Assembly I've ever seen.
The Democrats who run the joint lost a seat this week in a special election, and it will serve them right if they lose a whole bunch more.
We're all used to what they laughably call a process: Any time they want to do something repugnant, they blow off their rule book, slam the door on anyone who might fuss and pass some abomination before it can get press coverage. The Republican minority, most of the time, is an agreeable Vichy regime.
Legalizing keno is a pretty big deal. I spent a lot of last week talking and emailing with a guy who treats keno addicts, with an actual keno addict, with a researcher who studied in the phase-in of keno in New York, and with Connecticut's leading spokeman against the expansion of state-sponsored gaming.
In other words, I did what the General Assembly would have done if it were not ethically bankrupt.
What I learned confirmed my impression that keno is the crack cocaine of legalized gambling, the only difference being they don't let you sell crack at Denny's.
I found a counselor named Quinton Hehn who treats keno addicts in and around Missoula, Mont. "The new wave of machines are more addictive than the old ones," he told me.
Hehn said research revealed that, just by coming close to a win, a gambler gets a brain chemical rush comparable to a win. So the new machines are programmed, he said, to show a higher rate of "near-hits." If one of the numbers you played was 15, for example, a machine will show you a 16 rather than a 40, to make you think you came close. Which makes you keep playing.
I talked to UMass-Amherst researcher Rachel Volberg who said, as many have, that the way keno machines reset and play new games every five or six minutes creates a more hard-core player and that their presence in bars and restaurants makes them different from the games you have to seek out in a special venue. In her study of keno implementation in New York, Volberg found that non-urban white males were big players from the get-go but that urban Hispanic females quickly discovered keno and became prime players.
This is the kind of material that would have come up in public hearings and committee debates if there had been any. Instead, the legislative leaders jammed keno legalization into a budget package two or three business days before it was passed. They squeezed press coverage and the public right to know down to a number near zero.
Care for a rich irony? One of the big lobbying players was TCORS Capitol Group, which reps for Scientific Games International. Other TCORS clients include the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association and the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. I know, right?
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's deputy budget chief told me the state doesn't know how many machines are coming, how many places they'll be in, or whether those places are bars, gas stations, restaurants or Chuck E. Cheese's. But somehow they feel confident in promising $30 million in tax revenues in the second year of the budget.
There was no time to inform us and no time to figure out any details. Somehow, as David Collins, columnist for The Day, pointed out, there was time for extensive negotiations with the Mashantuckets and the Mohegans, who have to sign off on this deal … and did, for a 12.5 percent cut.
This legislature is the Parliament of Potterville, the seedy sleazetown of "It's a Wonderful Life." Their casual tolerance of corrupt use of campaign money was unveiled in a federal trial this spring, and they had the gall a few weeks later to change the law so they could take more campaign contributions. House Speaker Brendan Sharkey called the trial "a distraction."
From what? Keno?
You're familiar with the expression: "Better the devil you know." Well, I'm sick of this bunch of devils. Let's have some primaries and tough elections and get some new devils in there.
Colin McEnroe appears from 1 to 2 p.m. weekdays on WNPR-FM (90.5) and blogs at http://courantblogs.com/colin-mcenroe/. He can be reached at Colin@wnpr.org.
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