With Oregon getting ready to offer electronic slot machines, the 2005 Legislature will come under pressure to fully fund gambling-addiction treatment programs that could become...
SALEM, Ore. — With Oregon getting ready to offer electronic slot machines, the 2005 Legislature will come under pressure to fully fund gambling-addiction treatment programs that could become a lot busier.
Under orders from Gov. Ted Kulongoski, the Oregon Lottery is making preparations for a July 1 start-up for the new video slot-machine games, which are expected to boost net revenues from state gambling by $120 million.
Kulongoski says the money is needed to fund Oregon State Police patrols.
But even some state officials say the addition of slot machines could worsen problem gambling.
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“We are barely able to meet our needs now, and with the state’s expansion into slot machines we don’t think we will be able to meet those demands with our current budget,” said Jeffrey Marotta, a clinical psychologist who manages problem-gambling services for the state Department of Human Services.
Oregon has an estimated 60,000 addictive gamblers. Marotta predicted the lottery’s slot games will create 8,000 more problem gamblers, an estimate he based partly on the experience of Canadian provinces that have gone to video slot games.
“Slot games have broad appeal to gamblers,” he said. “It doesn’t take any particular skill to play the slots. You just have to know how to put the money into the machine, then press a button.”
Washington voters last month turned down a Tim Eyman-sponsored ballot initiative that would have allowed electronic slots in nontribal venues, such as cardrooms, taverns and bowling alleys, put a 35 percent tax on the profits, and used those proceeds to lower property taxes.
One percent of the proceeds would have been dedicated to programs for problem gamblers.
Washington continues to allow electronic slots only in tribal casinos.
The advent of video slots in Oregon represents the latest effort by that state’s political leaders to ramp up lottery games to produce more revenue. That expansion has occurred at a time when the Legislature has backed away from a commitment it made in 1999 to beef up funding for gambling-addiction programs.
Lawmakers voted then to permanently dedicate 1 percent of the lottery’s net proceeds for that purpose as a way to provide guaranteed help for problem gamblers.
As things have turned out, though, the Legislature has never allocated the full 1 percent for treatment programs. It has diverted some of the money to other programs as the state’s budget picture has gotten worse.
For the current two-year budget, Kulongoski recommended the full 1 percent amount — about $7.8 million — for gambling-addiction treatment and prevention, but the Legislature provided only $5.6 million.
That has left state and local health officials struggling to serve the growing numbers of Oregonians who are seeking help from the state’s free treatment programs.
“We’re fighting an uphill battle,” Marotta said.
Oregon’s program, one of the few free ones in the nation, includes 26 outpatient centers, two residential crisis-respite programs, a round-the-clock telephone gambling Help Line and 18 community prevention programs.
A key lawmaker said that while Oregon’s gambling-treatment program is a worthy cause, there are plenty of good causes in need of money as the state faces a $1 billion budget deficit.
“They will have to make a case that they deserve increased funding, based on the increase in gambling,” said Rep. Dan Doyle, R-Salem, who will be co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee.
Doyle said he doesn’t feel bound by the “really arbitrary” 1 percent funding figure for gambling-addiction programs that lawmakers endorsed in 1999.
But a veteran social-services lobbyist who has studied gambling addiction said that, especially with the major expansion that video slots represent, the state needs to do more to help problem gamblers.
“We are creating a problem that we have an obligation to solve,” Ellen Lowe said. “We need to meet the needs of those who are not going to be able to treat these new games just as casual entertainment.”
The Oregon Lottery Commission is scheduled to vote formally next month on launching the video slot games, but lottery officials already are looking at ways to beef up their efforts on problem gambling.
The lottery this year is spending $644,000 of its advertising budget to run TV and radio ads educating people about problem gambling and to tell people how to get help. The lottery also spends money on signs that are posted in the bars and taverns with those messages.
Carole Bono, the lottery’s assistant director for marketing, said the lottery probably will increase its spending on those efforts to keep pace with the increased level of play that’s expected when slot machines are brought on line.
Marotta, meanwhile, said the Legislature needs to consider doing the same if it expects the lottery to bring in even more money from gamblers to pay for state programs.
“There’s an ethical issue here,” he said. “If the state is going to profit from the misfortunes of these individuals, then there is a responsibility to offer services that will help them.”
Information from The Seattle Times is included in this report.