AUGUSTA, Maine — The release of data showing that more than 1,200 Mainers called a national hot line for problem gamblers last year has lawmakers renewing debate over the funding level for state help programs.
Some lawmakers on the Legislature’s Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee previously argued that because no one has sought assistance for gambling addictions from the state’s 211 help line, there is not a demonstrated need for more aid in Maine.
“This shows there is a need,” said Rep. Pamela Trinward, D-Waterville, co-chairwoman of the committee, referring to the national hot line numbers. “We knew there was a need more than zero, but we did not know about these numbers.”
Numbers from the National Council on Problem Gambling, which runs the national phone line, indicate that five years ago — before the opening of the state’s only racetrack casino — that same hot line received fewer than 120 calls from Mainers.
Lee Thompson, who heads the state affiliate of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said the national figures always have been available, but that no one in the Legislature had asked for them.
She said calls to the national phone line have grown consistently since the Hollywood Slots facility in Bangor started to operate in 2005, with calls jumping from 118 in 2004 to 1,008 in 2007.
“And last year, it was up to 1,263 calls,” she said. “I don’t know how anyone can say there is not a gambling problem here; of course there is a problem.”
Thompson said the range of problem gamblers is as broad as the types of gambling in the state. She said the calls were for help with off-track betting, state lottery games and all other forms of gambling allowed in Maine.
“This is a form of addiction,” she said. “It’s not about the money, it’s about the feelings that they get when they gamble, whether they are playing poker or lottery tickets.”
Hollywood Slots spokesman Jason Birney said Wednesday the company is sensitive to the issue of problem gambling.
“We encourage people to play within their means and we encourage people to utilize the services of the national number if they believe they have a problem,” he said.
The issue is front and center in the Legislature, with the House passing a measure that would increase the state’s yearly allocation from $50,000 to $70,000 for gambling addiction treatment. The House bill also does away with the yearly automatic increases in the majority committee report that would raise the allocation to $250,000 in 2023.
The Senate has voted for that majority report so the issue now goes back to the House.
The money comes from the funds the state gets from Hollywood Slots and was part of the original citizen initiative bill that voters approved that allowed the establishment of the racino in Bangor.
Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, a member of the committee, said while the national help line figures show there is a need, she still is opposed to automatically increasing state funding every year. She said both committee reports also would move the funding from the Department of Public Safety to the Office of Substance Abuse Services.
“That’s where it belongs,” she said. “The reason both reports move the funding is because we realize there needs to be more outreach and educational efforts to reach those that need the help.”
Valentino is convinced that future legislatures will increase the funding for the program if the demand does increase. She does expect there will be an increase in demand for services, but said each legislative session should assess how much is needed for the program.
Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, the GOP senator on the committee, said the issues surrounding gambling addiction and outreach have been discussed for several years. She does not believe the state is doing a good job advertising the existence of its help program.
“I am very pleased to hear they find the national gambling hot line,” she said. “If we can somehow connect in with them a little better, than maybe there can be a better referral process.”
Plowman said many on the panel felt having the programs run by the Department of Public Safety discouraged people from calling and asking for help. That is why both committee reports transfer the funding to the Office of Substance Abuse. She suggested that the 211 number printed on the back of lottery tickets was misunderstood by lottery players.
“They just called to get the winning numbers,” she said.
Valentino said there are several outreach programs under way. They include Web sites, pamphlets distributed at gambling locations and the 211 information phone number on the back of lottery tickets.
The current treatment program, operated by Day One, has used some of the funds allocated for addiction services to set up a database to track the problem and to train staff to provide gambling addiction services. So far, no services have been provided under the program.
The House could continue debate the issue today.