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Rep. Wants Study of N.M. Gambling

By Jeff Jones
Journal Staff Writer
    SANTA FE— How many gambling addicts are there in New Mexico and how many are seeking help?
    How many have committed suicide or attempted it?
    How many bankruptcies have resulted from gambling debts?
    Right now, no one can answer these questions. But a veteran state lawmaker is taking her third crack at a bill that would fund a study to determine what negative impacts a booming gambling industry is having in New Mexico.
    "Hopefully, the third time will be the charm," Rep. Kandy Cordova, D-Belen, said of her bill. "We do need a study. We need it desperately. I'm ready to commit to making that my priority."
    The last New Mexico gambling-problem study took place nearly a decade ago, when researchers estimated that more than 175,000 people in the state had some kind of gambling problem. At the time of that 1996 University of New Mexico study, the number of those with problems represented about 12 percent of the state's adult population. But legalization of casino-style gambling in New Mexico, and the real explosion of the industry and pastime, was still a year away.
    The gambling industry in New Mexico has grown considerably since, and more growth could be on the horizon.
    Cordova said she has twice tried to pass a bill for a new gambling problem study, but those attempts fell short. She said she was prompted to make her third attempt after reading a recent, weeklong Albuquerque Journal series on the status of gambling in New Mexico.
    Cordova's current bill would require the state Department of Health to define what constitutes a compulsive or problem gambler. The department would then collect data on how many New Mexicans fit that definition and on how many of them are getting help.
    All suicides and attempted suicides would be investigated to determine if problem gambling played any role. The health department would also have to obtain data on the number of bankruptcies in which gambling issues were involved.
    The bill would set aside $110,000 in state general-fund money in fiscal 2006 to finance the study. The health department would have to report its findings to a legislative committee in fiscal 2007 and every five years thereafter, although no recurring funds to pay for future study work are included in Cordova's bill.
    Cordova said "it's a shame" that a post-1996 study hasn't already been done.
    A national gambling impact commission created by Congress recommended in 1999 that states conduct gambling problem studies every two years. A survey completed for that commission found the presence of a gambling facility within 50 miles roughly doubles the prevalence of problem gamblers.
    "We're due to see really where we're at," Cordova said. "I don't think we really know (the extent of the problems). I know so many cases where there's been divorces."
    Kandace Blanchard, executive director of the New Mexico Council on Problem Gambling, said Monday a new study would be a good thing— as long as the study mirrors studies that other states have already conducted. She said that would allow a comparison of New Mexico numbers to what is taking place elsewhere.
    The council operates a crisis line for problem gamblers, and the phone number is posted at tribal and nontribal gambling venues around the state. Blanchard said the crisis line received more than 5,000 calls in 2004.
    Cordova's bill, still in its original chamber at the legislative session's halfway point, is scheduled to be considered by the House Business and Industry and the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.