ANNAPOLIS – Valerie Lorenz has seen how compulsive gambling can destroy families and even end lives, either in prison or by suicide.
Gambling addiction counselors like Lorenz aren’t typical supporters of expanded gambling interests, but Gov. Robert Ehrlich is presenting them with a quandary with his proposal for the only state-funded gambling treatment in nearly 10 years.
Nearly $6 million in treatment funding is attached to his slots bill, which would bring about 15,000 machines – along with a potential increase in gambling addiction – to the state over the next several years.
Lorenz, who runs the Harbour Center in Baltimore providing outpatient treatment and the only residential treatment facility in the state for compulsive gamblers, is one of several providers in line for funding.
But advocates are uneasy about the “double-edged sword” built into the legislation.
“To create gambling addicts in order to raise state funds is really unethical,” Lorenz said.
For every dollar that gambling raises for the state, Lorenz said the state will have to spend up to $3 in social costs.
Mike Osborne, founder of the Problem Gambling Council of Maryland, will not join slots opponents because he supports the treatment provision in the bill. Osborne started a new gambling hotline in January, 1-866-Y-RISK-IT.
A study released Friday by two Maryland business roundtable groups and conducted by Optimal Solutions Group predicted new social costs of more than $200 million each in Prince George’s County and Baltimore, where slot machines are proposed at Rosecroft and Pimlico racetracks.
But while problem gambling is expected to increase by anywhere from .7 to 3.7 percent with the introduction of slots, Mark Turner, who conducted the social cost analysis for the study, reinforced the economic benefits of expanded gambling.
“The economic benefits greatly outweigh the social costs to Marylanders,” Turner said. He added that a portion of the revenue generated should be used to mitigate the negative social impact of slots in areas that will be disproportionately impacted.
A study on the prevalence and effect of treatment of problem gamblers in Maryland has not been conducted since 1990.
Under the governor’s proposal, the state would assess $390 per machine annually for a “compulsive gambling fund.” The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene would administer the money for a 24-hour hotline, counseling services and a prevention program.
Funding for treatment without the slots bill would be nice, said Nelson Sabatini, department secretary, but the money is not available.
“You can’t fund everything,” he said.
The governor’s office defended the bill and the treatment funding it supports.
“That is more money than any previous governor or the Legislature has proposed in the past” for treatment, said Henry Fawell, the governor’s spokesman.
Support for gambling and gambling addiction treatment has fluctuated throughout Maryland’s history. Slots were legal for two years in the 1930s, and were reauthorized for Southern Maryland until 1968.
The state lottery opened in 1973, and Maryland introduced its first gambling treatment program through a state grant in 1979. First operated by Johns Hopkins University, the treatment center changed locations and ownership several times before dissolving in 1986. A gambling counselor training program was funded for two more years.
Keno came to retail locations in 1993. Subsequent state funding paid for maintenance of a state gambling addiction hotline, but treatment funding never resurfaced. The hotline, 1-800-522-4700, now routes callers to Delaware because funding is not sufficient to support an in-state staff, according to treatment advocates.
Lottery and Keno were introduced as new revenue sources, said Buddy Roogow, director of the state lottery, which is also Ehrlich’s intent. The games provided $444.8 million to the state last year.
“I believe it’s unfortunate that Maryland dollars are leaving the state,” Roogow said. “It would be great to recapture some of that.”
Other studies have reported that more than 80 percent of the nation’s general adult population has gambled within the last year. About 3 percent of those people are problem gamblers, and about 1 percent are gambling addicts, researchers said.
In Maryland, more than 120,000 people fall into these groups.
The impact of expanded gambling may take time to reveal itself because it can take up to two years for an addict to “hit bottom,” Lorenz said.
In addition to debt and bankruptcy, compulsive gamblers can end up in jail, divorce, take their own lives, borrow or steal money from family and embezzle from employers to finance their gambling, creating a ripple effect that extends into the community, Lorenz said.
Christine Reilly, director of the Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders at Harvard Medical School, said the rate of criminality associated with compulsive gambling is exaggerated in gambling debates.
“Frankly, for people who are trying to recover it’s very demoralizing,” Reilly said. More often than resorting to theft, addicted gamblers will use their own money, depleting savings and retirement funds, Reilly said.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, one of the governor’s strongest allies on slots, said treatment for any addiction is important.
“There are a lot of addictions in the world, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs,” Miller said. “Perhaps the slots bill will bring more awareness to gambling addiction in the state.”
The campaign against slots seems strong from the turnout of opponents at hearings on the proposal, but Aaron Meisner, spokesman for Stop Slots Maryland, admitted the odds aren’t good for defeating a measure with strong bipartisan support: “It’s an away game for us.”