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N.H. Panel Backs Keno, Casual Poker Games

Concord — The House this year rejected the idea of a casino in New Hampshire. But a bill to legalize Keno appears to have a shot in the traditionally gambling-averse chamber.

The House Ways and Means Committee Wednesday voted 14-5 to recommend the full House pass a bill allowing bars and restaurants to offer Keno games.

It won’t go to the floor until January, but Wednesday’s vote demonstrated bipartisan support for the idea. Nine Republicans supported it, while Democrats split, 5-5.

“I look at Keno much like Pac-Man was, years ago. ... It’s going to be in the bar or outside in the lobby, and while you’re waiting, it gives you something to do,” said Rep. Gary Azarian, R-Salem.

Keno is a bingo-type lottery game that involves picking numbers. It’s available in a number of states, including Massachusetts, but not in New Hampshire.

A Keno bill was introduced in 2012, but was killed by the House after the Ways and Means Committee voted, 19-0, to recommend studying the issue instead. The House this year voted to create a committee to study the possible implementation of Keno in New Hampshire, but the bill was tabled by the Senate, in effect killing it.

Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee this year voted to retain a second bill, introduced by Bedford Republican Rep. Keith Murphy, that would allow Keno games to be offered at businesses that are licensed to serve liquor.

The committee made a few tweaks to that bill yesterday, reducing the proceeds reserved for the restaurant or bar owner from 10 percent to 8 percent and earmarking 1 percent for gambling addiction services through the Department of Health and Human Services.

“I do recognize that some people will get addicted to Keno, and if we’re going to deal with that and recognize that as a reality, we need to in fact confront the problem, take a very small proportion of money — 1 percent — and allocate that to research, prevention, intervention and treatment services for problem gamblers,” said Rep. William Butynski, D-Hinsdale.

The New Hampshire Lottery Commission estimated the original Keno bill would generate nearly $8.9 million a year in state revenue. A lower take for establishment owners would mean more money for the state, but Charlie McIntyre, the lottery commission’s executive director, said it will also mean “somewhat slower” adoption by bars and restaurants.

Rep. Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, chairwoman of the tax-writing committee, has long opposed proposals for expanded gambling in New Hampshire and opposed the Keno bill Wednesday.

Almy said she doesn’t know much about Keno, but “I am terrified by the incredibly high gambling just south of us in Massachusetts. ... I don’t want to see that happening in Concord and Lebanon and in Berlin and Keene.”

But the committee voted, 14-5, to endorse the amended bill.

The committee also voted, 19-0, to endorse a bill making it legal to play poker in private residences, so long as the game isn’t advertised to the public and there’s no benefit to the “house,” such as an admission fee.

Both bills will go to the floor in January. If they pass the Democratic-controlled House, they will next go to the Republican-controlled Senate.

Gov. Maggie Hassan strongly supported a bill this year that would have allowed a single casino in New Hampshire. It passed the Senate, but the House, which has traditionally opposed expanded gambling, killed it in May.

Hassan, a Democrat, hasn’t yet announced a position on the Keno bill.

“We’ll review the measure as it moves through the legislative process,” wrote spokesman Marc Goldberg in an email.