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No state money for gambling addiction in Arkansas 

Legislator who led effort to end funding wants to see money restored.

click to enlarge SEN. ALAN CLARK: His 2015 bill killed state dollars for gambling addiction, but he is now in favor of restoring funds.
  • SEN. ALAN CLARK: His 2015 bill killed state dollars for gambling addiction, but he is now in favor of restoring funds.

It does not say under the "Play Responsibly" tab on the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery's website that Arkansas is one of only six states — along with Idaho, Wyoming, Texas, Alabama and South Carolina — that have a statewide lottery that direct none of its proceeds to problem gambling services.

Instead, the website tells visitors that "the games of the ASL should be played for fun and entertainment, like going to the movies or a sporting event. If playing interferes with regular activities, responsibilities, relationships, or physical or mental health, it is problem gambling." For those with gambling problems, the ASL directs people to the National Council on Problem Gambling Hotline at 1-800-522-4700.

But that aid is not state-sponsored or supported. Keith Whyte, director of the NCPG, says his organization is the one "providing coverage for everybody in Arkansas" with the hotline while the state is "raising money on the backs of those they are refusing to help."

"You have a national group that has to step in to help provide the most basic services for Arkansas residents," Whyte said.

Beyond the hotline there is Gamblers Anonymous in Arkansas, which the lottery also publicizes online. But, as of December 2015, the NCPG reported only five weekly meetings occurring in the entire state. That means the $80.9 million already raised in this year's cycle will flow only to funding scholarships, with none directed to offset services for those with gambling addictions.

This was not always the case. When the lottery was adopted in 2009 the state agreed to set $200,000 aside each year for problem gambling services. These funds were sent to the Department of Human Services and doled out to support addiction counselors in Arkansas and the NCPG. Bishop Woosley, head of the lottery, estimated that about $17,000 went to support a hotline annually from 2009 until 2015.

But a state law passed in 2015 cut that funding. The NCPG has continued its service despite the lack of cash flow, receiving over 15,000 calls from Arkansas since the halt of state support.

In the legislature, the potential to restore the money — or even study the problem — has been marked by miscommunication, according to Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale). Clark sponsored a 2015 bill that ended the state's financing of problem gambling services; but, he says he did not intend for it to be the end of the discussion.

The only reason Clark proposed cutting the funding was because the services were not adequate, he said. According to Clark, a group of interested parties, including a former lottery commissioner, told him that the money was being used ineffectively. He called the original $200,000 his bill cut from the budget of "a drop in the bucket for what we really need."

"All I was against was wasting money," he said. "If the state of Arkansas is going to be in the business of making money, we should be in the business of dealing with the problems that go along with it." Now, he is a chief proponent for studying and potentially restoring funds to the services.

In the last legislative session, Clark tried to put forward legislation to survey the amount of money that would be required for the state to seriously deal with gambling addiction. It passed the Senate with ease.

In early April, the bill came to the full House after passing out of the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor committee. An earlier version of the bill was not a simple study, but included a $12 million appropriation for gambling disorder prevention services. The House, Clark said, mistook the appropriation as still part of the bill and shot it down.

"They got confused, to be polite," Clark said. "If the House leadership had just asked me, they would've passed the bill."

A potential solution may exist outside legislation, though. According to Arkansas statute, the definition of the lottery's expenses includes "funds for compulsive gambling education and treatment."

"They could put that in their budget that they bring to legislature every year and we could approve it," Clark said, though he has not spoken directly with Woosley about this possibility.

When asked about including problem gambling services in the budget, Jake Bleed, a spokesman for the Department of Finance and Administration, said Woosley and his staff are "very aware" of the provision but have chosen not to utilize it. Bleed said that historically "there simply are not enough local resources to fund to help combat problem gambling." Instead, the lottery, according to Bleed, has to "rely even more on our national resources."

This includes membership in the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries, which directs money to problem gambling support, and a newly forming program with lottery consultant Camelot Global, focused on stopping underage players and excessive player behavior.

But the NCPG has been left out in the cold. Whyte says private gambling operations provide more money to his organization than the state. Oaklawn Racing & Gaming and Southland Park Gaming & Racing each gave $12,500 to his group in 2015. In January, Southland donated another $15,000.

Sue Madison, a justice of the peace in Washington County and a former legislator who was often critical of the lottery, said it is hard to dissociate this lack of attention to the problem with the selling of the lottery by the state through advertisements. "It's sold to the public. They encourage people all the time," she said, "and people become addicted."

This year, Woosley said, the commission's budget is directing $6 million to advertising.

Particularly frustrating for Madison is the perceived public good of funding scholarships through a lottery. "[The lottery] takes money from low income and uneducated people and gives them to middle-income people in scholarship," she said. Whyte said data showed that those "who are most at risk for gambling addiction and hit hardest by it are poorer, less educated and older Arkansans."

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