Nebraska cities want lawmakers to reduce how long keno players must wait between games, a proposal that would increase the maximum number of games a person could play in one hour.
Gambling opponents have fought the proposal for years, calling it a form of expanded gambling that hurts the poor disproportionately.
But lobbyists for Omaha and the League of Nebraska Municipalities told a legislative panel Monday that government revenue from the games has helped pay for police cruisers, park renovations and substance-abuse treatment programs.
"It's a very helpful source of revenue," Gary Krumland, a lobbyist for the League of Nebraska Municipalities, told the Legislature's General Affairs Committee. "We support (the bill) because cities think this could make the game just a little more fun to play, a little more attractive, and maintain the revenue for the cities."
The bill by Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber would cut the waiting period between keno games from five minutes to three. Lawmakers rejected a similar measure last year, 20-17, amid protests from anti-gambling groups.
Cutting the wait time would allow bettors to play as many as 20 games per hour instead of the current 12, said Pat Loontjer, executive director of Gambling With the Good Life.
"We're talking speed, and we're talking addiction," Loontjer said. "Anytime you're talking addiction, you're talking community problems."
Karpisek disputed that the bill (LB273) amounted to expanded gambling.
"If (revenues) are going up, I would say people are voting with their wallets," Karpisek said. "I have not been out on a campaign with the State Patrol with a gun to anyone's head to go play keno. … If they want to play keno, if they want to go gamble, they will and they can. And most of them go to a surrounding state."
Keno is similar to the lottery, but bettors don't have to wait for a daily drawing. Bettors try to guess numbers chosen by a computer. They can pick up to 15 numbers between 1 and 80, and the computer chooses 20 numbers. The profits from player losses are shared by local bar owners, cities and the state.
The bill also is supported by keno operators, which likely would see a windfall, based on state estimates showing a revenue increase.
Omaha has raised $5.4 million in revenue from keno games, about 1 percent of its overall budget, city lobbyist Jack Cheloha said.
"There are a number of ways we've utilized it for community betterment," he said
Krumland said voters in more than one-fourth of Nebraska's 530 cities and villages have approved keno as required. Nebraska has 162 communities that offer keno and 723 businesses that are licensed to write the game.
The Rev. Al Riskowki, executive director of the Nebraska Family Council, said the proposal was effectively a tax increase on the poor because they play the game in disproportionate numbers.
"If you lower it from five minutes to three minutes, are you really going to attract many new players?" he asked. "Or, in fact, will it be the ones who are already playing, only losing more money?"
Reducing the wait time would increase gross statewide wagering by an estimated $34 million, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office. The amount wagered per game would decrease, but the legislative office estimates that the number of games played would increase enough to increase gross keno proceeds by 17 percent.
The bill would generate an estimated $408,000 for the state's general fund in the budget year that begins July 1, according to the Fiscal Office. Revenue to Nebraska's charitable gambling operations fund would increase by an estimated $272,000 in that year.