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Our View: Third time’s a charm? Keno bill shouldn’t be held up by compact

January 7, 2019

Arizona lawmakers are making a bet on keno. The lottery-like game was pushed previously by State Sen. Sonny Borrelli in the last legislative session, and Gov. Doug Ducey hoped potential revenues from a new state sanctioned game could support as much as $15 million each year to pay for increased teacher pay.

Those attempts hit a brick wall, but incoming State Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita of Scottsdale will try again to get the popular casino game passed at the legislative level.

Borrelli likes to point out that keno is so similar to other lottery games that it should be a breeze for the state to begin allowing games. The sticking point, he says, is the game’s use of a video screen that makes it appear more like a video gambling device. Those comparisons — along with pushback from influential tribes — seem to be why legislators appear to be shy when it comes to pulling the trigger on keno.

When Borrelli’s bill was moving forward last year, it met early resistance from the Navajo Nation, which argued that the 2002 compact gives tribes the exclusive right to operate casino-style games in exchange for sharing about $100 million in profits with the state each year. It’s true that tribal gaming was a win-win when it began to flourish in the state several decades ago. But fear of competition shouldn’t be enough to prevent additional revenue opportunities when they make sense.

Ugenti-Rita’s bill is similar to Borrelli’s previous versions. It would lift a ban on state-run keno as a way to raise money without raising taxes.

The thing is, even if it passes, it seems pretty likely it would come under immediate legal scrutiny from the tribal communities that are granted the right to operate casino-style games through the state’s 2002 gaming compact.

We agree with Borrelli that the game ought to be allowed. It’s an easy way for the state to raise needed additional income — and avoid silly money grabs like the $32 MVD fee passed last year. Furthermore, we think Borrelli has a point when he says keno is more like a lottery game than it is a casino-style game.

Here’s the thing: If it’s clear that a new keno game will be a catalyst for a legal battle with the state’s tribal communities, then it’s not enough to get a bill passed. Ducey’s office ought to begin holding concurrent conversations with those tribes. Compacts come up for renewal every decade or so, and perhaps it’s time to build negotiations for the next one around the legalization of keno. Perhaps that’s easier said than done. Getting the bill passed will certainly be the easy part.

But Arizona’s gaming laws are vague, and there’s plenty of wiggle room here. If it means additional funding for schools, or roads, that doesn’t take another dollar out of taxpayers’ pockets, it’s a conversation worth having. Take a chance, Arizona.

— Today’s News-Herald

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