Treatment groups see windfall from slots

Problem-gambler services stay mostly neutral on bill as they jockey for funding

March 29, 2004|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

As the battle over casino-style gambling heats up in Maryland, an unlikely group is waging its own behind-the-scenes scramble for a piece of the action.

Counseling services and other organizations that work with problem gamblers - groups that might be expected to campaign against proposals to legalize slot machines - are jockeying for a share of the dollars that the electronic gambling devices would generate.

At issue is control of an estimated $6 million the state would set aside to run a problem-gambling hot line and to pay for treatment programs under a proposal that has passed the state Senate and is awaiting action this week in the House of Delegates.

That social services windfall would be nearly twice as much as any state spends on gambling addiction programs.

"We do not legalize cocaine in order to have drug treatment programs, but that's exactly what we're saying here - that we have to legalize gambling to treat gambling addicts," said Valerie Lorenz, director of the Compulsive Gambling Center Inc. of Baltimore.

Lorenz, who, unlike many of her colleagues, has publicly warned Maryland policy-makers of the risks of opening the state to thousands of new slot machines, said treatment dollars shouldn't depend on expanding gambling.

But that's what is happening. Maryland once provided modest funding for problem-gambling counseling, but that was eliminated from recent budgets. It would be restored and expanded - if the bill a House committee will take up tomorrow becomes law.

The bill, an amended version of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s slots plan, would permit 15,500 slot machines at six locations in the state. It also calls for an annual tax of $390 per machine to fund treatment services.

The estimated $6 million the tax would generate is far more than the $3.5 million annually spent in Indiana, the state that spends the most on treatment for problem gamblers, according to the Association of Problem Gambling Service Administrators.

It is a paradox that has unfolded in many places as casino-style gambling has spread across the country: Those who treat problem gamblers depend on money from the kind of gambling they decry to deliver treatment services.

Most of these service providers typically stand aside during the political debate over whether a state should legalize casino-style gambling - joining the fray only to argue that money be set aside for their programs.

"We are and always have been neutral" on expanding gambling, said Keith S. Whyte, executive director of the nonprofit National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington.

The council has 34 state chapters, including one in Maryland, and its mission is to serve as an advocate for problem gamblers - conservatively estimated at 2 percent to 3 percent of the U.S. adult population, he said.

"Gambling is an activity that many people choose to engage in," said Whyte, who previously worked for the American Gaming Association, the gambling industry's chief lobbying arm. "We're not going to fight over whether it's demon rum.

"We also recognize that most people are able to gamble without harm. The decision of whether or not to legalize gambling is for a community or state to make."

`Gives them green light'

The Rev. Thomas A. Grey, who heads the Rockford, Ill.-based National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, said it is disingenuous for treatment professionals to declare neutrality on gambling expansion.

"If you say you're neutral, it gives them [states] the green light to expand gambling," Grey said.

The message, he said, is that it is fine to bring more gambling into a state as long as money is provided for problem-gambling hot lines and treatment services.

Grey said research has shown that gambling addiction rates double within 50 miles of a casino. Treatment professionals ought to oppose expansion that will create more gambling addicts, he said.

"If they're saying let's make more [addicts] so we can have more services, then it's pretty pathetic," he said. "It creates more victims to help more victims. It's like in Vietnam, saying we've got to burn the village to save the village."

In defense of neutrality

Joanna Franklin, who heads the Maryland Council on Problem Gambling, defends the group's neutral position on the governor's slots proposal, noting that the state already has compulsive gamblers and has done little over the years to help them.

She said expansion of legalized gambling has proved to be the "easiest way for any serious money" to become available for treatment services in most states. Otherwise, she said, the problem is generally ignored.

Rachel Volberg, president of the National Council on Problem Gambling's board of directors, said: "When you prohibit a very popular set of activities and drive them underground, it becomes harder, rather than easier, to help folks who get into difficulties with those kinds of activities."

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