The Kentucky Lottery Commission authorized the creation of a new keno game Friday to shore up a cash-strapped state scholarship program despite opposition to the move by state political leaders.
Lottery board Chairman Bill Covington said that the decision to add keno, while difficult, will prove correct in the long term.
History will say that we have done the right thing, Covington said after the board approved the new game by a 6-1 vote. We have done what we think is best for the state of Kentucky, for the lottery ... and for the children of Kentucky.
By adding keno, the lottery could take in between $95 million and $125 million, of which $29 million to $38 million would go to the states coffers, lottery officials said.
But House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, said he was disappointed in the lottery boards decision.
Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, and other legislators have also publicly opposed adding keno, Richards said.
I dont know whether the legislature will reverse that or not but I know the senate president was quoted this morning as being against it and I certainly am, Richards said. I feel like it should have gone to the General Assembly or a referendum before they passed it.
By creating keno, the lottery board subverted the intent of the state constitutional amendment that created the lottery in 1989, he said.
Keno is an entirely different game from what I think the voters approved when they voted for the lottery, Richards said. I think its a really unfortunate decision that the lottery board has made.
State treasurer and lottery board member Jonathan Miller, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said he felt that it was not the right time and not the right forum to consider an expansion of gambling.
Miller suggested that the introduction of keno should be sanctioned either by the General Assembly or through a constitutional amendment approved by voters.
But the boards general counsel, Bill May, said he thought the board has legal authority to create a keno game.
Miller said the state faces a crisis in higher education because of skyrocketing tuition and falling state revenues used to finance state scholarship programs. But Miller said that in the spirit of bipartisanship, the board should defer for the time being to Gov.-elect Ernie Fletcher to give him time to develop a plan for the state budget and the scholarship program.
Miller is a Democrat and Fletcher is a Republican.
Friday afternoon, Fletcher spokesman Wes Irvin said the governor-elect has some real concerns about keno and felt the lottery board may have been too hasty in giving its approval for the game.
Clearly, thats something that should have been closely evaluated, and we are concerned about it, Irvin said.
During his campaign for public office, Fletcher said that any expansion of gaming in the state should be determined by the will of the voters.
What action the governor-elect may take regarding keno is not yet determined as he and his staff prepare for his transition into office, Irvin said.
Right now, the transition is where our focus is going to be, and thats really all I can say, he added.
Keno is a type of numbers-drawing game, with multiple drawings daily. Typically players choose one to 10 numbers from a possible field of 80. Keno is already played in a dozen states.
Lottery officials said keno, which they expect to be played online mainly in social gathering places such as restaurants, bars, bowling alleys and fraternal organizations, would offset the lotterys predicted substantial losses when Tennessee introduces its lottery early next year.
That money funds the popular Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship program, which provides funds to college students at state universities based on their performance in high school and had been funded in the past by the lottery, but this year, legislators predicted a shortfall of $3 million or more in funds for the program.
KEES scholarships, which provide up to $2,500 per year for college students, have helped thousands of students from around the state attend college.
At Western Kentucky University alone this semester, 5,831 students received more than $3.8 million in scholarship funds through the program, said Lois Tidwell, scholarship coordinator in Westerns Financial Aid Office.
Its really good for a lot of students, Tidwell said. The legislators had said they would save it if at all possible.
But the program had been facing a serious budget shortfall after flagging lottery sales and the expected rise in competition from Tennessees new lottery.
A report presented to the state legislatures Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education last week suggested that the legislature might have to dip into the states General Fund to fully fund the program unless new revenues could be generated.