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'Kenogarten' becoming law is anyone's bet

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 03. 2017 10:44PM

MANCHESTER - Like a phoenix, legalizing betting on Keno at New Hampshire bars and restaurants has risen from the political ashes, but for the first time it's got a powerful driver: funding full-day kindergarten.

State Rep. Karen Umberger, R-Conway, freely admits House budget writers only decided to bring back Keno to financially support giving an additional $1,100 for each 5-year-old who enrolls in a full-day kindergarten program.

"In an effort to get something to the school districts, we compromised," Umberger said. "We came across any number of different options and the one that appeared we could most quickly implement was to support Keno."

State Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, charged this gambit was a cynical way for House GOP leaders to get some leverage over state budget negotiations with both the state Senate and Gov. Chris Sununu because full-day kindergarten has become a bipartisan priority to both of them.

The House in a historic, partisan collapse last March failed to adopt its own budget.

"This is the height of chicanery on the House's part. It's what disgusts people about politics today that the House would take something everyone wants and manipulate it this way," D'Allesandro said.

While he's always been a Keno opponent, D'Allesandro said it will get a renewed look in the Senate because full-day kindergarten is not fully embraced by House Republicans.

"It's a little ridiculous and it is a power play, but we'll see," D'Allesandro said.

Consider last Wednesday, the House passed what's been dubbed "Kenogarten" handily, 231-100. But House Republicans split down the middle over it - 93 for, 92 against.

"This bill is a potential budget buster," said Rep. Kevin Verville, R-Deerfield, warning the state could one day have to finance all costs for full-day kindergarten that state officials estimate is $29 million annually.

"This bill is a prime example that two wrongs don't make a right."

Dems Keno converts

On the flip side, House Democrats, who know the House GOP caucus is mixed over kindergarten, are now embracing Keno in ways they never have.

Last week they backed it as a group, 138-7.

Only three years ago, voting on an identical Keno program that didn't have kindergarten, House Democrats narrowly opposed it, 98-to-89.

"The evidence is clear that full-day kindergarten is a clear benefit to the children of our state," said Durham Democratic Rep. Marjorie Smith, a past opponent of Keno without kindergarten attached.

Meanwhile, city and town leaders are just starting to pore over this measure (SB 191) to review how they would deal with the Keno question should it become law.

The program is strictly voluntary; in fact, Keno only comes to a city or town if the voters approve it at Town Meeting or citywide referendum.

The New Hampshire State Lottery would run the games and have broad latitude to approve which bars and restaurants could have it.

Many view Keno as an electronic bingo game since number drawings are made as often as every five minutes. Players fill out a form to decide how many of randomly chosen numbers they will try to pick. The more numbers they play, the higher the cash reward.

What this bill does not do, however, is dedicate Keno profits to full-day kindergarten grants. Instead the money flows into the Education Trust Fund that supports all aid to public schools.

So a city or town that adopts Keno may generate more profit for public schools than it would receive in full-day kindergarten grants.

"This sounds like you could have donor towns with Keno, communities like Manchester subsidizing more kindergarten money to property-rich towns that won't ever vote to have Keno," said Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas.

"That feels fundamentally unfair to me."

Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess said he's still reviewing the matter, but believes many bar and restaurant owners in his city would embrace Keno if voters adopted it.

NH Keno players in MA

Massachusetts is one of 17 states that have approved this lottery-run game and eight of the 10 most profitable locations for Keno are within 10 miles of the New Hampshire border.

"There's no question we need additional revenue and I really appreciate the House getting on board in support of full-day kindergarten," said Donchess. "I'd frankly prefer it if all the profits we generate flowed back to us, but that's never been the case with the lottery either."

Gatsas said the bill doesn't spell out how much money from Keno would go to players in prizes and how much would go to education aid. The only earmarks are the bar/restaurant owners get to keep 8 percent of proceeds and 1 percent would go to programs that treat addicted gamblers.

"This bill just raises many more questions than answers," Gatsas said.

The Senate has been the perennial burial ground for Keno bills - it voted 13-10 to reject this same bill without kindergarten a year ago.

Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, and D'Allesandro led the campaign for casino gambling and have rejected Keno as not generating enough education aid or economic activity to warrant support.

There are eight state senators, six Republicans and two Democrats, who haven't voted on Keno before. Gov. Sununu has no track record of opposition to Keno.

Last Wednesday, Sununu heaped praise on the GOP-led House for endorsing his top priority - full-day kindergarten - with no mention of Keno.

When it comes to expanded gambling, Sununu has been neither a zealous supporter nor vocal opponent and stressed he would judge any proposal on its individual merits.

"I'd consider this a pig in pink clothing," D'Allesandro summed up.

"But like it or not we've got to deal with it because everybody wants kindergarten."

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