When the constitutional amendment to permit a Kentucky state lottery was being crafted in 1988, there was much discussion in the Legislature about whether the amendment would open the door to other forms of gambling in Kentucky - casino-style games like Keno, for instance. No, said backers of the bill, the amendment was meant to permit traditional lottery games as existed at that time and nothing more.
About a decade later, when a new debate arose in the Legislature about whether the Kentucky Lottery could add Keno to its lineup under the lottery amendment, the consensus was that such was contrary to the legislative intent of the amendment and the idea died.
Then came a 2009 attorney general's opinion meant primarily as cover for establishment of "Instant Racing" via video terminals at the state's racetracks. The opinion, convoluted and almost certainly wrong, does not have the force of law. It relies in part on a second constitutional amendment and its enabling legislation in 1992 that allowed charitable gaming. That legislation said that games charities could operate at fundraisers include Keno. The AG opinion - in a true leap of logic - concludes that means the Legislature views Keno (and similar types of gambling) as an acceptable type of lottery; ergo, the Kentucky Lottery can operate Keno games.
The real upshot of the AG's opinion had to do with the legality of using Video Lottery Terminals, better known as VLTs, under the auspices of the lottery to operate new games of chance such as "Instant Racing." The AG's opinion said the lottery could operate VLTs and the state could tax and regulate them.
The state promptly launched "Instant Racing" terminals at several Kentucky tracks, and a contest of their legality is tied up in court to this day. Last year the lottery board authorized itself, Obama-like, to launch Keno VLTs in Kentucky, and it has done so this year.
The problem with Keno is that it has a reputation as one of the most addictive of gambling games. Unlike the lottery, with games that tend to be twice weekly or daily at best, Keno can be played every five minutes.
And addiction can be swift. The Baltimore Sun wrote an article in 1993, shortly after Maryland adopted Keno, that found Keno players can be "out of control within 2 to 3 weeks." By comparison, it generally takes two to five years for a vulnerable person to become addicted to horse racing.
A story in Monday's Paducah Sun about Kentucky's new Keno enterprise is troubling in several regards. The lottery sold $28.5 million of Keno wagers as of June 21, which is a half-million dollars more than projected. This happened despite the fact Keno is available at only 272 locations. The revenue projection had been based on 400 locations.
Mike Stone, executive director of the Kentucky Council on Problem Gambling, says it is too early to tell from available data whether Keno has had a dramatic impact on gambling addiction in Kentucky, although any expansion of gambling opportunities will naturally lead to increases in addiction.
For its part, the lottery tries to wash its hands of the addiction issue by saying that it advertises for its customers to "play responsibly." The problem with that line is it suggests addicts have a choice. They may have a choice the first time they play a game like Keno, but if they're predisposed, pretty soon they no longer have a choice until they have suffered ruin. That is the nature of addiction, which is cynically ignored by gambling advocates.
Also troubling is that Keno is designed to expand the reach of the lottery to places where lottery tickets are not now sold - bars and restaurants primarily, in an effort to broaden the gambling clientele.
We think the lottery's stealthy expansion into Keno is a move many Kentuckians will come to regret. If Republicans are in the majority in both chambers of the Legislature after the November election, they should clarify legislative intent on the matter and clip the lottery's wings by shutting Keno down.