AUGUSTA — Several state lawmakers are moving to block a state-led effort that would expand the Maine State Lottery to include the gambling game Keno at as many as 300 locations.

Keno is a game offered at casinos in which a player selects 10 out of 80 numbers for cash prizes. The state’s Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations is preparing to allow the game at licensed lottery retailers, such as convenience stores, and fraternal organizations, such as American Legion halls. The bureau estimates the expansion would yield $8.7 million in revenue for the General Fund in the first 12 months.

The move comes as other states are considering Keno games to beef up revenues from lottery sales that traditionally rely on scratch tickets and weekly draw games such as Powerball.

However, several lawmakers have submitted an emergency bill that would effectively prohibit Keno from being included in the Maine State Lottery. Some of them expressed concerns at a public hearing Monday that a state expansion into Keno would drift too far into traditional gambling and transform convenience stores into mini-casinos.

The proposal, L.D. 516, is sponsored by Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, the House chairman of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which oversees lottery operations in Maine. The bill is co-sponsored by several other members of the panel, some of whom closely questioned Richard Rosen, the governor’s budget and finance chief, during the hearing.

Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, Senate chairman of the committee, repeatedly asked Rosen if his department had considered the “social and ethical” effects of a game in which participants fill out betting slips and wait for drawings to occur every four minutes. Cyrway said he was concerned that the game would further or awaken an individual’s gambling addiction while normalizing the practice in front of children.

“We can’t just come up with a new game and say this is how it’s going to be,” he said. “Ethically, we have to look at this. Sometimes putting things in writing and just throwing it out there isn’t always the best way.”

Cyrway and Luchini also indicated that the administration had not made lawmakers aware of its plans to add Keno to its lottery repertoire until it briefed the committee on the proposal in January. The state has the statutory authority to add certain “draw” games to its lottery offerings. However, Luchini and Cyrway said Keno represented a significant change in state-sanctioned gaming.

“Beyond procedure, I’ve heard concerns about placement in restaurants where children are present, bars where people are drinking, poor payouts, cannibalization of charitable games, attempts to target a younger demographic who don’t generally play lottery … increased exposure to compulsive gamblers and overall concerns about the regressive nature of the game,” Luchini said.

Cyrway said the state’s proposal seemed like a “blackmail situation” because the state had initiated the program without clearing it with lawmakers.

“You’re saying that this is something that can go out there … and not going through the process and just do it,” he said. “To me, it’s really blindsiding. … The state, I don’t believe, realizes the impact of children being exposed to gambling like that.”

He added: “To me, it’s one thing to buy a scratch ticket and scratch it off. But when you get into the time element, you’ve got to stand there and wait for the process and you’re picking different numbers, that’s a whole different ballgame.”

PROCESS DEFENDED, IDEA SUPPORTED

Rosen said the bureau was simply following the rules laid out in a lottery law adopted by voters in 1973.

“We are clearly operating under statutory authority, which spells out step by step the process we’ve gone through,” Rosen said. “I’ve made it a point to put together a comprehensive presentation about the Keno initiative. No rule … required that. There was clearly never an intent to blindside anyone, particularly the policy committee and members of the Legislature. If that sense is there, it’s unfortunate.”

Rosen also rejected claims that Keno isn’t like traditional draw games. It simply has a shorter turnaround to determine “if you’re the winner or not the winner,” Rosen said.

“In a way, it’s like an instant ticket,” he said.

Philip St. Pierre, owner of the Victor News convenience store in Lewiston, supports the Keno expansion. He said over a dozen states have included Keno games in their lottery offerings.

When Cyrway told St. Pierre that he’d visited his store and then asked how he would accommodate a game that requires a counter to fill out tickets and a television screen to view the drawings, St. Pierre said he would clear out a special area. He said Keno would help him sell other merchandise and he expected that customers would play multiple times.

“I see some people staying in the store watching the screen,” he said, adding that he would probably add seats to the store.

ADDICTION, DOMESTIC ABUSE ISSUES

Rep. Beth Turner, R-Burlington, was not comfortable with the scenario that St. Pierre described.

“As you describe people coming into the store with children, my stomach was getting quite ill,” she said.

Turner then questioned whether St. Pierre would prevent the purchase of Keno tickets if a child picked the numbers for a parent or guardian. St. Pierre said he would be inviting trouble if he did.

“It’s different with alcohol or cigarettes,” he said.

Several lawmakers didn’t see the difference. Neither did the Christian Civic League of Maine, which chastised the LePage administration for introducing a gambling initiative that would “lead to more compulsive gamblers.”

“And the more compulsive gamblers we have, the greater chance for domestic abuse we will have as well,” said Carroll Conley, the league’s executive director. “It is this reality that is truly upsetting, as the governor’s proposal to expand state-sponsored gambling severely undercuts his stated commitment to reduce domestic violence in our state.”

The proposal to block Keno will be examined in a work session before being considered by the full Legislature. The administration has said that it hopes to launch the initiative this spring. However, if the proposal is fast-tracked, that could block the Keno expansion.