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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Problem gambling programs thriving despite downturn

10 November 2008

AS VEGAS, Nevada -- Thanks in part to slot machine taxes, compulsive gamblers no longer have to pick up the phone to get information about local support groups and treatment programs.

They can find it on the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling's Web site, which lists more than 30 Gamblers Anonymous meetings held on any given workday in churches and community centers throughout the valley.

Tax money has also enabled the Problem Gambling Center — the only nonprofit, walk-in clinic in Las Vegas — to expand its treatment sessions for gamblers and their families.

The economic downturn has slashed slot machine revenue by more than a billion dollars, cutting education funding and other government services. The decline has barely dented the programs — treatment and education for gambling addicts and compulsive gambling prevention efforts — funded by the taxes casinos pay on their slot revenue.

The downturn will create a shortfall of less than $100,000 of the $1.6 million allocated to such programs and services by state Advisory Committee on Problem Gambling in 2008 and 2009. That's particularly good news in a state that, relative to the size of its gaming industry, has had scant treatment and prevention programs.

To address the shortfall, the committee didn't allow grant recipients to roll over unspent funding. The group will dole out money for 2009 based on a performance analysis of these programs over the past year. Most recipients are expected to receive the money they need to continue their programs.

The cutbacks mainly affect programs that had shifted focus, those that needed less money than expected or efforts that are still on the drawing board.

The state Legislature in 2005 voted to earmark a small percentage of the slot tax to such programs in 2006 and 2007. The committee is now ending the first year of its second round of grants.

The programs are expected to have a lasting effect on the community even if the tax money were to dry up, commission members say.

"The money has had a huge impact," said member Carol O'Hare, executive director of the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling, which received a two-year grant of about $200,000. "It feels a lot better than the old days, when we felt like we were shouting in the wilderness." The council operates a statewide crisis hotline and trains casino workers and employees in other settings to identify the signs of problem gambling.

For the council, the money has made possible new programs and services that have been implemented with an extra full-time staffer who had worked part time, O'Hare said.

"The grant money doesn't mean you double your staff. It will never offset all the costs of these programs," she said.

The council has drafted additional volunteers, while the enhanced Web site is distributing information more efficiently, allowing staff to focus on the new programs.

The money is also helping to train people as state-certified problem gambling counselors and to fund the group's third annual problem gambling conference, to be held in March.

More than 1,500 unique visitors were logging on the council's enhanced Web site each month as of a few months ago. That figure continues to rise while calls to the hotline have stayed about the same over the past couple of years.

"A certain number of people are never going to pick up the phone and talk to somebody but are comfortable gathering information on their own," O'Hare said.

Even as it enhances the Web site, the council is spending money to evaluate its toll-free helpline.

"A Web site will not help you in a crisis," O'Hare said. "There are people who need to talk to someone."