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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Problem Gambling Advocates Laud Guinn's Call for Funding

26 January 2005

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Problem gambling advocates are applauding Gov. Kenny Guinn's effort to raise $200,000 to help problem gamblers but say it is only a small starting point for what they hope will become a longstanding financial commitment from the state and its dominant industry.

Meanwhile, the seed money has opened the door to what will likely become a heated Legislative debate over how much more the government -- and the casino industry -- should pay to help problem gamblers.

In his State of the State address to the Legislature on Monday, Guinn for the first time publicly acknowledged the state's need to fund treatment for problem gambling, allocating $100,000 from the state's general fund and promising another $100,000 in matching funds from the casino industry and other private donors.

Some called the move a moral victory for a state that has long been criticized nationwide for lacking any public funds to help gambling addicts.

"It's really a sign that we've come out of the dark ages and into the modern world on this significant public health issue," said Robert Hunter, a psychologist and clinical director of the Problem Gambling Center in Las Vegas. "There are states with far smaller revenues from gaming spending millions of dollars on problem gambling."

"It was appropriate and it was time," added Carol O'Hare, executive director of the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling.

The governor has historically opposed public funding for problem gambling treatment, saying such funding should come from the casino industry. That position has hurt bills allocating $250,000 in government funds for treatment that died in the past two legislative sessions.

Guinn spokesman Greg Bortolin said the financial pledge isn't an about-face but a recognition that compulsive gambling is a serious problem. The $100,000 from the state is intended to serve as seed money to kick-start larger commitments that will come from the casino industry, he said.

"At the end of the day there are sick people who need help," Bortolin said. "The governor is sympathetic to those folks. The message he has received is that the gaming industry is willing to step up to the plate and do its part."

Several lawmakers have another idea in mind.

State Sens. Randolph Townsend and Dennis Nolan, among others, intend to push a bill through the Legislature that would press the state to fork over more than the $100,000 allotted in the governor's budget.

The casino industry has already done its part, Townsend said.

The growth of the casino industry and a resulting surge in gaming taxes over the past couple of years is in large part responsible for the state's budget surplus, Townsend said. While the casino industry can afford to give more money to help the state, the bill anticipates placing the primary funding responsibility with the government, he said.

The growth in gaming taxes means the state has a bigger stake in the casino industry and a greater responsibility to help problem gamblers who may lose their families and jobs to a gambling addiction.

"We have hundreds of different types of people who serve alcohol in this state and we don't ask them to fund alcohol and drug abuse programs," Townsend said.

Townsend said lawmakers are using as a guide a state Department of Human Resources estimate that the agency would need up to $2 million to set up an adequate system to assist problem gamblers. Most of the money would be used to treat gambling addicts.

The department, which is eyeing similar systems already in place in other states, envisions an application process by which treatment centers and counselors would apply for government money.

"It's clear that $200,000 probably won't meet the need," Department of Human Resources Director Michael Willdon said. "But the $100,000 of general funds is there as a placeholder to get grants, gifts and donations."

At least seven treatment centers in Las Vegas, including the nonprofit Problem Gambling Center, have state certified gambling counselors and could theoretically qualify to receive state funds, Willdon said.

Nevada passed legislation in 2003 to certify problem gambling counselors by standardizing educational requirements for treatment providers. The state has so far certified 10 counselors and expects to have 15 certified counselors in the coming weeks, Willdon said.

Willdon said the funding comes on the heels of a pair of state-commissioned studies on problem gambling in 2002, the first of their kind in Nevada.

One of the studies estimated that 2.7 to 4.3 percent of Nevadans are "pathological gamblers" and another 2.2 to 3.6 percent show signs of a less severe gambling problem. Of gamblers, 7.6 percent suffered from a gambling addiction, while that rose to 17.6 percent of people who gamble at least once a week.

The governor wanted to see the results of those studies before moving forward and wasn't prepared until now to address the issue, Willdon said.

Others say political muscle helped push the issue to the forefront.

Problem Gambling Center board member Ken Templeton, a local developer and slot-route operator, has pressed lawmakers and casino giants to lend their support. He also has enlisted the help of former state senator and county commissioner Mark James, a respected lawyer who led an effort to pass problem gambling funding that failed in the 2001 Legislature.

"We don't need to study (problem gambling) anymore," Townsend said. "We just need to find the revenue for the people providing these services now. We want to make sure that whether it's $200,000 or $2 million, it goes directly to the people providing the services."

The funding effort presents a challenge but is now a matter of "how much" rather than "if," Townsend said.

Harrah's Entertainment Inc. is one company that intends to give money to jump-start problem gambling funding.

"We're proud that (Guinn) has taken the lead in raising the question of how we fund problem gambling," said Jan Jones, Harrah's senior vice president of communications and government relations. "I think it shows real leadership."

Jones declined to specify how much the company would be willing to give but said it would support raising from the industry more than the $100,000 envisioned by Gov. Guinn.

"We're happy to give more to make sure this issue is appropriately addressed," she said. "We're more than willing to match as long as we believe it's a partnership between the industry and the state."

Funding treatment is just one important piece in a complex series of issues relating to problem gambling that should be addressed as a whole, O'Hare said.

"We can't just throw a chunk of money at treatment and say the government is doing it's job," she said. "We still have to realize that we don't have (problem gambling) education in the schools, we don't have a mandate for other kinds of service providers to include screening for problem gambling."

"To simply equate a dollar amount to a better solution may be misleading," she said.

The Nevada Council on Problem Gambling is a statewide education center that trains casino workers on the dangers of problem gambling and operates a free hotline for compulsive gamblers. The nonprofit group is primarily funded by casino companies.