Colorado struggles to fund addiction treatment services after sports gambling boom

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DENVER (KDVR) — Colorado embraced sports betting in a way few experts predicted. Gamblers ended up wagering $2.3 billion in the first year since it was introduced in May 2020. All together, the state’s Department of Revenue said gambling companies made $65 million in profits from May of 2020 to May of 2021. That calculates out to $6.5 million in tax revenue that the state will collect since the proceeds are taxed at 10%.

A year ago, the state gaming division projected tax revenue would be somewhere between $1.5 and $1.7 million which was equal to one fourth of the revenue the state will actually collect.

Even though the actual collection amount has far surpassed expectations, that doesn’t mean more money will go toward solutions and treatment programs for people with gambling addictions. When voters approved the measure that legalized sports betting in November 2019, the fine print only allocated $30,000 towards a national gambling helpline and $100,000 towards treatment.

“We need more funds because the state didn’t anticipate this increase. They need to provide the funds,” said Peggy Brown, a volunteer with the Problem Gambling Coalition of Colorado.

Brown is a former gambling addict who now answers the phone when people call Gamblers Anonymous. She says the organization seen more calls ever since sports gambling was legalized.

“Not only from the gambler, but it’s also the families of the problem gambler, especially the spouse,” said Brown.

According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, there were 3,563 calls made in Colorado to the national hotline from May of 2019 to December of 2019. During the same seven months of last year when sports betting was legal, they saw a 35% increase with the total jumping to 4,834.

Brown said the addition of sports betting has increased the number of gambling addicts in Colorado,

“Yes, no doubt in my mind. I go to 12-step meetings,” Brown said. “I know what is happening on the ground level.”

The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates more than a 102,000 Coloradoans have a gambling problem, which is equal to around 2.4% of all Colorado adults. Even though that number may seem high, the state only has seven counselors certified to treat gambling addictions.

“That treatment is different than other addictions. It’s a different illness than drugs or alcohol,” said Brown, who believes the state should increase funding to train more counselors to treat gambling addictions.

Brown told the Problem Solvers her coalition believes 1% of the tax proceeds from sports gambling should be set aside for treatment and other services. That would’ve amounted to about $650,000 dollars last year.

State legislative leaders say additional funding is also something lawmakers might be willing to consider.

According to House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Democrat from Denver, it might not be pragmatic to change the wording of the sports betting bill to funnel more tax dollars towards treatment. But, he says it’s possible to add funding through other means if lawmakers are willing to do so

“If they’re in need of more revenue we can look at doing something through the long bill or the General Fund,” said Rep. Garnett.

The Problem Solvers also found out that providers haven’t received any money that the state promised. A spokeswoman for the state Department of Revenue told the Problem Solvers it can’t distribute any of the $130,000 for the hotline or treatment until sometime in the fall because the tax revenues have to undergo a financial audit before they can be spent.

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