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Arkansans Consider Casino Amendment As Gambling Addiction Goes Largely Unchecked

Oaklawn Racing & Gaming

Arkansas is one of just seven states that does not spend money to support gambling addiction treatment.

Meanwhile, canvassers are collecting signatures this month to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would authorize two casinos, one in Russellville and one in Jefferson County. The ballot item would put a minimum of $200,000 into gambling addiction treatment services.

However, Director of the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) Keith Whyte says that’s only a "pittance" when stacked up against the state’s needs.

"Arkansas suffers from a greater prevalence of gambling problems than the national average and has more severe problems due to the lack of state services," said Whyte.

"What we would expect is that the introduction of even more gambling in Arkansas would increase an already high level of problems without any of the countervailing preventative and protective measures."

The NCPG estimates about 2 percent of Arkansans, or 48,000 people, have a gambling problem. Director Whyte notes the state has never conducted a study to assess the problem or its solutions. His organization estimates $3.5 million may be a good figure. That number however is based solely on lottery players and does not including race tracks and games at Oaklawn in Hot Springs and Southland in West Memphis.

The state used to have a hotline for problem gambling, but it was shut down in 2015 after the state legislature voted to redirect funds derived from the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery into scholarships and not addition services.

Since then, the NCPG has dedicated its private resources to fielding calls.

Nate Steel, legal counsel for the ballot committee behind the Arkansas Casino Gaming Amendment of 2018, isn’t worried about the impact of two new casinos on gambling addiction. Steel says those who are prone to gambling problems in Arkansas have already been exposed to gambling.

"We don’t anticipate that the licensing of two new casinos would substantially increase the amount of compulsive gambling. But we do think it’s an opportunity to raise funding for compulsive gambling. That may be completely unrelated to casinos, but at least we will have that," said Steel.

The casino amendment, put forward by the ballot committee Drive Arkansas Forward, directs a state commission to take steps to address problem gambling.

"In the amendment, the Arkansas Racing and Gaming Commission is charged with the task of regulating casino licenses. In the granting of licenses, the Racing Commission is instructed to provide a minimum of $200,000 for compulsive gambling disorder treatment and compulsive gambling disorder educational programs," said Steel.

That $200,000 figure, the same as what the state scrapped in 2015, is a "token gesture" in the eyes of state Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale). The Hot Springs-area lawmaker is an adamant opponent of gambling. But he also championed the legislation that ended state support for a gambling treatment.

But Clark says he only voted to end state support because he believed the funds weren’t being used wisely.

"We were giving grants to organizations that I like, charitable conservative organizations, but they weren’t doing anything to treat gambling addiction at all. It was just a money give away," Clark said.

But the NCPG opposed the funding cuts in 2015, contending it was a useful appropriation even though they assess it as far below what's needed.

Clark maintains he does want the state to fund gambling addiction services. He says if the casino amendment passes, he’ll champion new funding in the 2019 legislative session.

"I would definitely raise that toward the top of the list of something we had to get done. The more we expand it, the more carnage is going to be wreaked on families in this state and we need to at least do something to deal with it once people realize they have a problem," Clark said.

Backers of the Arkansas Casino Gaming Amendment of 2018 need to collect 84,859 valid signatures by July 6 to make it on the November ballot. It would also legalize sports betting.

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal ban for most states on sports wagering.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly called the group the National Council on Gambling Prevention. It is the National Council on Problem Gambling.

Jacob Kauffman is a former news anchor and reporter for KUAR.
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