The state lottery division deserves applause for its plan to fund a daily 24 hour Colorado "hot line" for compulsive gamblers out of existing lottery revenues.
The hot line will provide "crisis counseling and referral services to persons and families facing difficulties because of compulsive gambling". Cost is around $200,000 a year. That's less that two percent of the lottery money set aside for advertising, sales, research, sponsorships, special events, and public affairs under the title "marketing and communications". The hot line expense could easily fit under "research".
One possible impediment is the six member Joint Budget Committee (JBC) which will have three or more new members in January 1999.
The JBC might decide Colorado should continue to use out-of-state hot lines for compulsive gamblers without additional expense to the lottery. Of course, talking by phone to a compulsive gambling counselor in Nebraska may not provide a caller with someone who knows the local gambling scene and can truly follow up with help.
The push for this compulsive gambling hot line expense most likely comes directly from Gov. Romer down through Revenue Director Rennie Fagan and on to the Lottery Division. And it follows the defeat of HB 1118 by Rep. Jim Dyer, D-Durango, "Concerning Compulsive Gambling Prevention", which contained a Colorado-based hot line.
But Dyer's bill included a great deal more than the Colorado hot line. There would have been grants for education in the schools about excessive gambling, public awareness programs for the general public, research on the effects of gambling, and programs for treating gambling addictions. The state lottery fund would have provided all the money, $211,082 for fiscal 1998/99.
The bill required Colorado casinos, bingo halls, race tracks and businesses selling lottery tickets to place posters "at least 18 by 18 inches" in conspicuous locations to "describe some of the major symptoms of compulsive gambling", identify services available and the toll free hot line number.
The House Local Government Committee approved the bill 8 to 5 with four Republicans joining four Democrats to send the measure to House Appropriations. On April 8th, Committee Chairman Tony Grampsas, R-Evergreen, indicated his displeasure with the bill and it was killed by the Republicans on a straight party line vote. Grampsas has been a recent advocate of Colorado's casinos, carrying their unsuccessful constitutional amendment attempt to raise the betting cap from $5 to $100.
If Dyer is successful in his race for the State Senate, his bill will likely be reintroduced, considering that the Colorado Council on Compulsive Gambling recently honored him for his battle on their behalf.
Meanwhile the state lottery continues to tout its slogan "Play Responsibly" placed on lottery tickets and on posters as an "effective way" to reduce overspending on lottery tickets. In fact, it has as much effect as the signs "Honking Forbidden" posted on New York City street poles.
At least, the argument has now gone beyond whether there are or are not Colorado compulsive gamblers pouring money into the lottery, casinos, bingo halls and race tracks. Rachel Volberg's $65,000 grant from the lottery to study gambling activity in Colorado as it occurred during the month of April, 1997, settled that issue. The statistical average, between the highs and the lows for current state pathological and problem gamblers is 61,000.
Volberg found 30 percent of social gamblers played the lottery during one week compared to 56 percent of compulsive gamblers. And for every dollar spent by a social gambler on a lottery ticket, a compulsive gambler in Colorado spent $2.20.
Sometimes anecdotal evidence is useful even if it isn't local. A Denver Post story in 1997 tells of Les Wilson, a former newspaper editor in suburban Cincinnati who confessed to an addiction to instant lottery tickets that forced him to sell his paper and drove him to loot a Christmas fund. "Wilson played the scratch-off tickets so much he wore an indentation in a bar seat. The bar's owners said they saw him wager $100 to $200 on scratch-off tickets each day."
A Rocky Mountain News story tells of a fomer airline worker in Atlanta, Georgia, who pled guilty to opening as many as 100,000 greeting cards over a three year period and stealing $500,000 from the envelopes to play the Georgia lottery.
However Colorado's casinos are responsible for the major increases in the state's compulsive gambling, but can't be expected to go beyond "lip service" in reducing the addiction. Volberg reports the reason why. Eight percent of those in her survey who gambled reported spending $100 or more per month.
"However" she writes "this small group (eight percent) accounts for seventy-six percent of reported past month expenditures on gambling in Colorado." Volberg continues: "It is worth noting that 29 percent of the (compulsive) gamblers fall into this heavy-spending group compared to seven percent of the (social) gamblers.
Nearly eighteen percent of compulsive gamblers reported losing $1,000 or more in one day compared to 1.9 percent of social gamblers, and 53.3 percent of compulsive gamblers reported losing $100 to $999 in one day compared to 25.7 percent of social gamblers.
Volberg's study found compulsive gamblers nearly five times more likely than social gamblers to have gambled at casinos during the week and to have spent six and one half times more money doing it.
With casinos, we have more anecdotal evidence closer to home. There is Thomas Sims, a former Denver Social Services caseworker who embezzled $100,000 in welfare money "saying his gambling problem caused him to lose large sums playing slot machines at Central City and Black hawk". He pled guilty in April of 1997.
And there is the former insurance agent John Bryan Jr. who swindled the life savings of the elderly and is now in prison. "Since mid-1995" writes Denver Post reporter Marilyn Robinson, "he has visited a Black Hawk casino 390 times and gambled away $626,590." "This is just one casino," said Deputy District Attorney Laurie Mitchell. "We know there were others."
There are some brave voices in the casino industry. One of them is Alan Mayer, who was president of the Colorado Casino Owners Assn. in 1997, when he told Denver Post reporter Emily Narves "Clearly the issue of compulsive gaming is an issue that the casino industry can't hide its head in the sand about and needs to deal with up front."
"We can't cannibalize our own industry. We're not going to be an effective and profitable industry in the long run if all we do is feed off the compulsive gamers."
Apparently not every casino operation shares his opinion. If the casino industry through their lobbyists had informed the Appropriations Committee that they supported HB 1118, Rep. Dyer's bill would now be law.
Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.
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