Keno Expansion in Washington

The state of Washington has a long and complicated history with gambling and a new piece of legislation proposing expanded Keno games is just the latest chapter. A recent bill is proposing around-the-clock Keno games starting every four minutes as a possible solution to the state’s projected budget shortfall of more than $2.5 billion.

The game of Keno is already legal in the state, but it currently only runs once daily and the prize pools range from $1 to $100,000. The new proposal suggests expanding the current Keno system, making tickets readily available for purchase and displaying video screens in restaurants and bars.

The Seattle Times recently reported that none other than Margarita Prentice, the state’s Senate Ways and Means Chair, is contemplating sponsoring the Keno bill. Some may remember Prentice as the woman who spearheaded the 2006 law banning online poker in the state. The law was successfully passed and made gambling online a Class C felony, on par with animal cruelty and possession of child pornography. The ban was an amendment of the state’s 1973 Gambling Act.

A blog by Caleb Hannan on the Seattle Weekly’s website suggested that Prentice pushed through the online poker law in order to protect the interests of Washington State Indian reservations. These tribal groups also contributed heavily to Prentice’s campaign, leading local media like the Weekly to question the motives behind her actions.

Prentice commented to the Seattle Times about the new Keno bill, suggesting it differs from online poker, slot machines, and video poker, all forms of gambling she has previously fought against. She claimed that the four-minute intervals between games offered people a chance to “cool their heels” and not let the game get out of control.

What seems to be swaying the politicians of Washington more than the nature of the game itself is the potential revenue it brings to the cash-strapped state. The Keno initiative could bring in as much as $30 million in revenue annually, an amount that is getting the attention of numerous Washington officials, including Governor Chris Gregoire. The Times published an article on Friday that said that Gregoire was “seriously considering” the legislation, according to legislative director Marty Brown.

The state legislature is set to meet in January to discuss its budget crisis and they will consider the keno proposal, other cost cutting measures, and potential tax hikes. This is not the first time the state has considered a gambling initiative to add to revenue. In 2004, it put a ballot initiative pushing for slot machines in bars in restaurants to a vote and it was defeated by a 60% to 40% margin. The Governor’s office claims this new Keno proposal differs from the failed initiative in that it is not expanding gambling in the state, but rather building on the existing Keno system.

There has been no action on the Keno legislation just yet, but the reports from Seattle indicate that it will merit serious consideration as the state budget woes continue into 2010. The current budget is set to cover the state’s needs through 2011.