WA Gov Considers Keno

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire is “seriously considering” legislation that would allow four-minute Keno games as a way to help deal with a projected $2.6 billion budget shortfall.

The games could bring in an estimated $30 million a year. That’s not much money compared with the budget gap, but lawmakers are hunting for any cash they can find.

Similar bills have been proposed — and have died — in the past. Things could be different this time, given the severity of the state’s budget crisis, but the state’s tribes likely will fight any effort.

Washington already has a Keno game played once a day. Gregoire is considering allowing a new game every four minutes.

The governor hasn’t made a final decision, said Marty Brown, Gregoire’s legislative director. “She’s seriously considering it,” Brown said, noting it could be in her proposed budget due out early next month.

Budget writers in the House and Senate on Wednesday said they were open to the idea.

“I have not been a big gambling advocate in the past. But starting last (session) I was converted a little because of our budget situation, which has only gotten worse,” said House Ways and Means Chairwoman Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham. “Thirty million dollars here and $30 million there adds up to big money. No amount of money right now, for me, is too small.”

The state Legislature will convene in January to figure out how to plug the projected $2.6 billion in the two-year budget, which runs through June 2011.

Democrats who control both the state House and Senate have said that, in addition to cuts, they may try to close tax loopholes or raise taxes to help balance the budget.

Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, said she may sponsor the Keno legislation. “We wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t an absolute necessity,” she said.

Ron Allen, chairman of the Washington Indian Gaming Association, opposes the move. Allowing the expanded Keno game would take away money from casinos run by the tribes, he said. “The market is only so deep, and we’re close to saturation now,” he said.

Such a proposal also would lead to a large increase in gambling in the state, he said, noting that’s something Washington residents have indicated they don’t support.

In 2004, more than 60 percent of Washington voters rejected Initiative 892, which would have allowed thousands of electronic slot machines in neighborhood bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and other locations across the state.

The governor’s office said it doesn’t consider the Keno proposal an expansion of gambling because the state already has the game.

Washington’s current daily Keno game has prizes ranging from $1 to $100,000. Players choose between one and 10 numbers, either on their own or by letting a computer pick them.

The game being considered by the governor would allow tickets to be bought at all lottery retail locations. Monitors displaying the drawings every four minutes would be placed in restaurants, bars and taverns.

No information on potential prizes was available.

Prentice said Keno is different from games such as video poker. For one thing, there’s the delay between each game. “It makes you cool your heels in between,” she said.