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Not Walking the Talk on Compulsive Gambling

By Thomas J. Cole
Journal Staff Writer
          In February 2005, Gov. Bill Richardson held a news conference at the Capitol to talk about compulsive gambling and its fallout, including suicides.
        "I just feel this is a problem that we've kind of ignored. It's time to take action," Richardson said.
        The tough talk led to the Governor's Task Force on Compulsive Gambling, which led to recommendations to combat the problem, which led to the state Compulsive Gambling Council, which led to more recommendations.
        But most of the recommendations by the task force and the council — including some of their most critical suggestions — haven't been implemented. The Compulsive Gambling Council hasn't met in nearly a year.
        Meanwhile, we've gotten yet another lesson in the high costs of problem gambling.
        Kathy Borrego — described by her attorney as a gambling addict — embezzled an estimated $3.4 million from the small Jemez Mountain School District where she worked as business manager and pumped much of the money into casino slot machines.
        Borrego, 51, killed herself May 8, a couple days before her scheduled sentencing.
        "This was a tragedy all the way around," said Jemez Mountain Superintendent Adan Delgado.
        He was right; taxpayers are out millions and Borrego's family has a lost a daughter, wife, mother and grandmother.
        The Borrego tragedy is just one of many stories about problem gambling that have been told since the explosion of casino gambling in New Mexico in the 1990s on Indian land, at horse-racing tracks and in veterans and fraternal clubs.
        A month before Richardson's news conference, I wrote about a man who, tormented by his gambling problem, hanged himself next to the grave of his father.
        Theft and suicides are just some of the costs to society of problem gambling. We also pay costs of arrests, jail time, bankruptcies and more.
        A study conducted a few years back estimated the annual costs to society at $715 to $1,200 per problem gambler. We know Borrego cost a lot more than that.
        So it makes economic sense for state government to try to limit the costs of problem gambling. There is also a moral issue, since the state is the biggest single beneficiary of gambling. As a group, tribal casinos are also big winners, but they spend much more than the state to fight problem gambling.
        The record
        Let's take a look at what has occurred since Richardson's call to action more than five years ago.
        The Governor's Task Force on Compulsive Gambling recommended that the state spend $600,000 a year to train problem gambling counselors and to help pay for treatment for problem gamblers.
        The result: about $100,000 a year spent on training of counselors and employees at gambling venues. (The money wasn't appropriated until more than two years after the task force recommendation.)
        The $100,000 is the only general fund appropriation for problem gambling. The lottery will spend about $143,000 this year on a media campaign about the issue and to fund a toll-free telephone help line and other services for problem gamblers.
        The combined $243,000 is a fraction of the $170 million or so the state will rake in this year in lottery profits and its cut of the take from slots at tribal casinos, tracks and veterans and fraternal clubs.
        By comparison, tribal casinos and tracks are required by law to spend a minimum of about $2.3 million this year on prevention and treatment of problem gambling.
        The governor's task force recommended that legislation be enacted to establish the Council on Compulsive Gambling to continue and broaden the work of the task force.
        In addition, it suggested creation of a program that would allow gamblers to voluntarily have themselves excluded from entering the slots casinos at tracks.
        Richardson later signed both bills, although he waited nine months to appoint the members of the Council on Compulsive Gambling.
        The council — after studying the extent of the problem and related suicides and bankruptcies — made its recommendations last July.
        "With the council's research and analysis of New Mexico's needs, we are in a better position to develop consistent, effective programs that will prevent compulsive gambling and help New Mexicans who are struggling with gambling addictions," Richardson said.
        The council recommended that the state continue its work to train problem gambling counselors and employees of gambling venues, and it has. But the major recommendations of the council have never been implemented. Among them:
        • Creation of a state Office of Problem Gambling, which would coordinate spending on problem gambling programs by the state, tribes, the lottery and tracks.
        • Expanding and standardizing a 1-800 help line for problem gamblers.
        • Launching a yearlong media campaign about problem gambling.
        • Establishing comprehensive prevention programs for youth and seniors.
        n Funding of treatment programs.
        • Enacting legislation that would require veterans and fraternal clubs to spend part of their take from slot machines on problem gambling.
        All told, the council recommended that an additional $1.4 million in state money be spent on the problem. Not one additional dime has been appropriated.
        Deputy Health Secretary Jessica Sutin, who chairs the council, said the state's budget crunch has been an issue in implementing the recommendations. "It's money," she said.
        A quick note, however: Many of the council's recommendations were similar to ones made by Richardson's task force in 2005 when the state was flush with cash from the then-booming economy.
        Sutin said that the failure of the council to meet since last June "is really my bad" and that it would reconvene this summer.
        Under the law that created the council, it's required to submit an annual report to the governor and the Legislature. Its first — and only — report last summer was a year late.
        Sutin insisted the issue of problem gambling still ranks high with the administration.
        "We haven't stopped working," she said. "We're not going to give up."
        Guy Clark, chairman of Stop Predatory Gambling New Mexico (formerly the New Mexico Coalition Against Gambling), isn't optimistic about the future of the Council on Compulsive Gambling.
        "They seemed to have just let it die," Clark said.
        UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Thom Cole can be reached in Santa Fe at (505) 992-6280 or at tcole@abqjournal.com.
       
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