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Nevada may cut funds for gambling addicts

By Ian Lovett

New York Times News Service

Published: Saturday, Feb. 19 2011 7:14 p.m. MST

Gordie Greco was hooked on gambling almost from the first time he shot dice at age 16. And for 35 years, gambling was his life: he worked in the industry and made his own bets on sports and horses.

But when he was laid off in 2006, he made his way to the Las Vegas Problem Gambling Center, and it has now been years since he placed a bet.

Treatment programs for gambling addicts in the nation's casino capital are in jeopardy, however, as Nevada lawmakers look for ways to close the state's huge budget shortfall. The governor has proposed cutting financing for organizations like the center, which could leave those trying to quit with few places to turn.

"Getting help was the best thing I've ever done," said Greco, 61, who now volunteers helping other gambling addicts. "These cuts are going to cause a lot of despair. Gamblers don't have any money for treatment."

More than 5 percent of Nevada's residents are either pathological or problem gamblers, according to a 2002 study — almost twice the rate of the nation's overall population.

Since 2005, a $2 fee on slot machines has helped pay for research, prevention and treatment programs for problem gamblers. In 2009, the slot machine fees brought in about $1.5 million.

But with a budget deficit of $1.5 billion — almost half of the state's total operating budget from the previous fiscal year — Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, has proposed redirecting half of that revenue to the general fund. The move would make permanent a stopgap measure that the Legislature took last year.

Other lawmakers want to cut spending on problem gambling treatment entirely. State Sen. Ben Kieckhefer has proposed redirecting the other half of the slot machine money toward autism treatment programs that might also be on the chopping block.

"Treatment for problem gamblers is a needed service, but there are private treatment options," said Kieckhefer, a Republican from Reno. "When it comes to prioritizing the budget, I will take an autistic child over a problem gambler any day of the week."

The Problem Gambling Center offers outpatient counseling virtually free of charge to hundreds of patients each year. Private donations, including contributions from gambling companies, make up more than half of the organization's annual $410,000 budget.

"By any measure, we're a shoestring operation, which is ironic given that Las Vegas is the gambling mecca of the world," said Robert Hunter, the center's clinical director. "If we lost state funding, it wouldn't kill us, but we would be forced to make some dramatic cuts."

Still, Bo Bernhard, a sociologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said state money had been a boon to gambling addiction treatment, which he found to be effective for 19 of every 20 patients.

"Problem gambling treatment works in Nevada, not only in reducing gambling, but with housing and employment situations," Bernhard said. "Unfortunately, this is the sort of thing that gets cut during down times."

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