CONCORD, N.H. — Keno sales are off to a strong start in New Hampshire cities, but residents of some towns still have concerns about approving the electronic bingo game as a way to fund full-day kindergarten.
Voters in more than a third of the state’s 221 towns will be deciding this month whether to allow keno in bars, restaurants and other establishments. Seven of the state’s 13 cities approved keno late last year, but the annual Town Meetings in March mark the first chance for towns to weigh in.
At a public hearing Monday in Jaffrey, several residents opposed the measure, including Harvey Sawyer, who argued that gambling will add to the community’s problems and that taxpayers will end up footing the bill through welfare programs.
“In my mind, there’s no free money. The money’s gonna come out of the community from those least able to make good choices and least capable of paying the bills,” he told the town Select Board. “They’re looking for free money. They’re guilty of it, and so are you if you think it’s free money.”
Another resident told the board while she recognizes the need for revenue, she questions whether relying on people’s weaknesses is the right approach. She cited statistics about teens playing keno and said she also worries about a slippery slope toward further gambling, and the crime and other problems associated with it. Sawyer agreed.
“The argument can be, ‘It’s just keno, it’s just the lottery,’ but what will be next?” he said. “It just gets worse and worse.”
Others said people will gamble whether the town allows keno or not, and said helping children was a worthy goal.
“If someone wants to play it, they can play it. If they don’t want to play it, they don’t have to play it. But the best thing about it is that money raised is for kindergarten,” said Selectman Frank Sterling.
The Select Board isn’t endorsing the proposal as a group, though all three members said they support it individually. Selectman James Wiemman said he is backing it even though he agrees with the game’s critics.
“I get very disgusted when I go into different stores and have to wait 10, 15 minutes while someone is buying their lottery tickets and they don’t have the old proverbial pot to you-know-what in,” he said. “But this is a way to generate some money. I agree it’s probably not the best choice … but it’s able to help with some revenue.”
According to lottery officials, keno revenue has outpaced projections so far, bringing in more than $2 million in its first 10 weeks at more than 50 establishments.
Communities will receive the kindergarten funding regardless of whether they allow the game. In the past, the state has provided $1,800 per student for kindergarten, or about half of what it contributes for older students. Under a bill passed last year, that amount will rise to $2,900 in 2019, and higher in future years if keno revenues exceed expectations.