Tuesday, Gov. Christine Gregoire signed model legislation that creates treatment and prevention programs for our state’s growing number of problem gamblers. While other states fund similar programs, Washington is the first to legislate a permanent funding source, thus avoiding a biennial appropriations battle.
The legislation is modest in that it only budgets $750,000 a year through fees on commercial gaming operators, a fraction of the amount needed to meet current demand; by comparison, Oregon, with roughly half our population, spends $3.5 million a year. Washington Tribes have agreed to kick in an additional $450,000 to help fill the gap, but the commitment is neither permanent, nor nearly large enough to be commensurate with the size of the tribal gaming industry.
Still, anybody who has ever tried to push a bill through the legislature — especially one that raises taxes or fees — knows that even this watered down bill is an accomplishment. Many deserve credit for its passage, but as Peter Callaghan observed last week in The News Tribune, probably none more so than WA’s leading advocate for problem gamblers, Jennifer McCausland.
Jennifer McCausland, who joined the fight in memory of her son Ben, whose death was indirectly caused by his gambling addiction, believes the program is too timid. She opposed the final bill.
“I’m so terribly disappointed that I couldn’t activate any legislator’s sense of obligation to do more than the very minimum,” she wrote in an e-mail. “After all these years of neglect of the problem and overt willingness to have both hands in the pockets of gamblers, this was the best they could do?”
But McCausland doesn’t give herself enough credit. Her advocacy put a human face on the issue. And her scolding pushed legislators into doing the right thing.
I first met Jennifer last spring, when I was looking for ammunition to battle Tim Eyman’s gambling industry backed effort to legalize slot machines, the incredibly selfish and stupid Initiative 892. Jennifer is a passionate and persuasive advocate on behalf of compulsive gamblers and their families, and while I had hoped to recruit her to the fight against I-892, it was she who quickly converted me to her cause.
She taught me that gambling could be just as addictive as drugs and alcohol, and the consequences at least as devastating, destroying businesses, families, and lives. And I learned that problem gamblers were not merely an unfortunate by-product of the gambling industry, but rather, its core business… with over 50% of industry profits coming from 5% of its customers. Indeed, the science of slot machine design is the science of creating compulsion.
I spoke with Jennifer shortly after the bill signing, and she was perhaps a bit more philosophical with me than in her email to Peter Callaghan. While still disappointed over the amount of money allocated, she recognizes the accomplishment, and hopes it is only the first step. She told me that Olympia created a public health crisis by allowing a massive expansion of legalized gambling with little thought to the consequences, but that legislators were about to get their “eyes opened” to how big this problem really is.
“Once the program is fully implemented and legislators see how far demand for treatment outstrips supply,” Jennifer predicted, “it will be harder for them to ignore the need for adequate funding.”
Given the size of both our population and gambling industry, Jennifer believes the proper funding level should be at least $3.5 million a year, and possibly twice that. She also strongly believes that the tribal casinos must become a permanent part of the solution. But despite her resoluteness, she does not plan to lobby this issue full time, and has turned much of her advocacy efforts towards youth gambling, an issue she believes is dangerously ignored, not just in WA state, but nationwide.
She has converted me to that cause as well, and I will continue to support her efforts as best I can.