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Colorado Problem Gaming Bill Clears Legislature, Draws Pointed Criticism

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Colorado took a step forward late Tuesday in its efforts to fund problem gambling and responsible gambling programs in the state, though not without criticism.

HB22-1402, which would create the “Responsible Gaming Grant Program” in Colorado, won House approval of Senate amendments by a vote of 50-15 at about 10:45 p.m. It will now be sent to Gov. Jared Polis to be signed into law.

The estimated $3 million that would be apportioned by the bill for a grant program is a stark improvement over Colorado’s current funding of such programs, which stands at $130,000 per year. The bill overwhelmingly passed the House in its original version May 2, then passed the Senate 25-8, as amended, on May 5.

But those amendments continue to rankle problem gaming treatment and prevention advocates, who stress the need for secure and reliable long-term funding. The main Senate amendment changed the wording for the grant allotment from “continuously” to “annually,” which particularly galled advocates.  The change means funding for the program will have to be reapproved each year, and even for its first year, 2023. There are also questions as to whether providers operating treatment programs would make necessary investments if they are unsure whether funding will be available each year.

“Expanding gaming in Colorado creates an obligation for the state to address the social costs that come with it,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. “The amendments seem to deliberately not live up to that obligation. It’s hard to conceive of a less serious, less permanent solution. We’re glad the money is there, but it’s not as effective as it could be, when it is likely to be taken away next year.”

When asked why he felt the funding would be “likely” gone next year, he cited how little attention Colorado has previously given to the issue.

“Colorado’s entire experience and history with problem gambling points to the fact that the state does not take this seriously,” Whyte said. “Based on how hard we had to fight to make this happen, with this deliberate decision to make it approved yearly, it is clearly not a priority.”

The main sponsors of the bill in both legislative chambers, Speaker of the House Alec Garnett and Sen. Chris Hansen, did not respond to requests for comment on the bill Wednesday.

Time constraints likely played a part

Wednesday was a busy day for lawmakers due to being the last day of the legislative session, The timing crunch could have factored into the problem gambling bill, as the House bypassed a chance to reject the Senate amendments and send the measure to a conference committee to iron out differences between the two versions. Garnett had said Friday that he was “not completely clear as to why an annual review is a good idea,” and that the House bill, without the Senate amendments, “was great.”

“The speaker heard us, but in the end, politics and time won out,” said Brianne Doura-Schawohl, ​​a consultant who represented the NCPG during legislative committee hearings on the bill. “This is why stakeholders that are deeply invested in these issues push these types of proposals to get the time they deserve.

“In politics, you need to be able to forecast the unexpected. Very rarely do we see a bill get through without any meddling. Leaving plenty of time for the unexpected, especially when you’re trying to create things from scratch, is important. The legislators should be asking tough questions about a bill like this, because it deserves time and attention. But, because we’re against this hard deadline, concessions were made, and at what cost?”

‘It would expose the state’s failure’

Whyte went further and questioned the motives of state legislators in Colorado.

“It’s hard to tell if this is opposition or indifference, and I don’t know why people are opposed to addressing gambling problems,” Whyte said. “There are a number of legislators that are concerned, if Colorado really did address the scope of this issue, it would expose the amount of people not getting help. It would expose the state’s failure. The true scope of this problem is still concealed, and cynical legislators like it that way. … Some people may think that, by not addressing gambling problems, they can keep the social costs hidden.

“I would posit that there is no other disease or disorder that is funded entirely year-to-year. What other issue would you treat like that? Not alcohol, not opioids, not anything.”

There is some concern from advocates that speaking out against potential problems with the legislation covering the program could hurt negotiations in the future, and Whyte acknowledged that challenge.

“The $3 million is great. We appreciate it, but the way it is structured is so telling — so shortsighted,” he said. “I hope people understand that we appreciate progress, but we’re not going to be mollified by just a Band-Aid, and neither should the state of Colorado.

“Maybe it makes it hard for us next year, but quite frankly, I don’t know how much harder it could get.”

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