Problem gambling funds looking more likely - Tuesday 12th of April 2005

Two months after Gov. Kenny Guinn pledged to raise 200,000 to treat gambling addicts, a chief backer of that effort remains "cautiously optimistic" that the state will eventually cough up as much as 2 million to help problem gamblers.

Local developer and slot route operator Ken Templeton, a board member of the nonprofit Problem Gambling Center treatment clinic in Las Vegas, said he has strong support from the Nevada Resort Association and from Harrah's Entertainment Inc. in particular. Templeton also has hired local attorney Mark James, a former state senator and Clark County commissioner, to lobby the Legislature for funds.

"Four years ago I couldn't get the NRA to return my phone call," said Templeton, whose company develops commercial real estate and the Carefree apartment complexes for seniors. "I couldn't get anyone to meet with me about it."

Not anymore.

The bill draft to allocate funds for problem gambling treatment was introduced last week by Sen. Dennis Nolan, Randolph Townsend, Bill Raggio and Valerie Wiener. The bill -- the most detailed problem gambling proposal yet to be published -- calls for the creation of an advisory committee to direct funds to the prevention and treatment of problem gambling.

The bill would require that the Nevada Gaming Commission deposit a portion of gaming taxes collected into an account, which also could receive cash donations. The fees collected would amount to $1 per slot machine for casinos and slot route operators. Casinos now pay $80 per slot machine per year and restricted slot locations with 15 machines such as convenience stores and bars pay a flat rate of $405 plus a per-slot tax of $324 to $564 per machine per year.

The nine-member advisory committee would be made up of two casino operators, one slot route operator, two mental health experts, one member from the Gaming Studies Research Center at UNLV, one member representing a veterans organization and two members from problem gambling assistance groups.

Backers are hoping to collect up to $900,000 in the first year and close to $2 million by the second year.

Templeton said he doesn't anticipate casinos shying away from the bill because the account can be funded using excess gaming taxes the state collected yet hasn't allocated. That means a separate tax won't be necessary.

The big gaming companies already spend about $1 million per year in the form of donations to problem gambling services, Templeton said. That doesn't include self-funded insurance programs to treat employees with gambling problems.

Not that the bill will be a slam dunk.

"Senators have their pet projects that they want to get funded before a problem gambling bill," Templeton said.

Even so, it's been a good year so far for problem gambling advocates.

The governor's apparent change of heart -- Guinn had previously said the industry, not government, should be responsible for treating problem gamblers -- is tied to a shift in the gaming industry, Templeton said.

Las Vegas companies have expanded nationwide into states where they are required to address problem gambling upfront by devoting money to treatment. In Nevada, where the government doesn't require casinos to pay for treatment, a lack of understanding of gambling addiction as well as a desire to avoid controversy hurt previous efforts to pass a treatment bill, Templeton said.

A turning point came recently when Harrah's and the company's Chief Operating Officer Tim Wilmott took on the issue, he said. Since then, other gaming companies have followed in their support.

"They have given me the full support of their staff," Templeton said of Harrah's. "When Harrah's stepped up to the plate, you'd be surprised how many doors opened up for me."

All of which will help the Problem Gambling Center, a likely recipient of government funds.

The center, which celebrated its five-year anniversary in March, now treats about 400 people per year on a budget of $400,000. That's up from more than 200 people and about $350,000 last year. Officials want to expand with a Reno office before considering a second location in Las Vegas.

"There's not much (treatment) going on up there," the center's Clinical Director Robert Hunter said of Reno. The Las Vegas clinic, located at 2330 Paseo Del Prado, still operates with a waiting list.

Hunter, also, is optimistic about the bill.

"I do not think this is going to get pushed under the rug," he said. "Nevada has finally acknowledged problem gambling as a public health issue. We were the only major gambling state that had not gone on record saying some people can't gamble."

"Some people can break a leg skiing. That's like a ski resort saying, 'Nobody ever fell down and broke their leg on our ski slope,' " Hunter said.

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