What to do about compulsive gambling? Maybe next year, say lawmakers

Broken piggy bank with cash and coins on wooden background
Help for compulsive gamblers never got staked in the Special Session.

Left on the table in last week’s whirlwind Special Session: What to do about the spread of compulsive gambling that will inevitably be a side effect of Florida’s gambling expansion.

Most likely, it will be one of the first issues the Legislature takes up in the 2022 Legislative Session.

While the Legislature pushed through the Seminole Compact and gambling bills to support it, the matter of dealing with compulsive gambling drew alarm, debate, promises, but no action.

With Gov. Ron DeSantissignatures applied to all the bills Tuesday — pending approval by the U.S. Department of Interior — the Seminole Tribe of Florida will be able to offer sports betting in licensed gambling lounges and online, fantasy sports gaming will breathe freely, new casinos are likely to open and many existing casinos may expand,

As roulette wheels start spinning and craps dice start tumbling, more Floridians will lose rent money, child support money, or a semester’s tuition. Then, they’ll turn to desperate measures to get more.

“If the Compact survives scrutiny at the federal level and the legal challenges, this is going to be a major expansion of gaming opportunities in the state of Florida, just in the sports betting alone,” said Richard Pinsky, a lobbyist for the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling. “Florida is not prepared right now for the impact that it will have upon families and individuals.”

Florida’s main response, through the Council, is a gambling prevention program helpline, 1-888-ADMIT-IT (236-4848). Set up initially to assist compulsive gamblers in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, it is woefully unprepared to handle statewide action; it was never fully funded even for its intended purpose.

“I can show you the actual transcripts (of calls) that would wrench your heart,” Pinsky told a House committee last week.

Pinsky warned that “thousands and thousands” of Floridians will fall into compulsive gambling problems. And he believes that will grow fastest among younger generations.

“The younger demographic, that’s exactly who does sports wagering and fantasy sports,” Pinsky said. “College students and those under 30. And they’re also the most at-risk group.”

In the House, Democratic Rep. Tracie Davis of Jacksonville, with an across-the-aisle assist from Republican Scott Plakon of Lake Mary, tried to attach two amendments to the omnibus gaming bill to provide far more money and take the gambling prevention program statewide. The amendments were ruled out of order as tax increases and reluctantly withdrawn.

In the Senate, Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg had an identical experience with companion amendments he tried to offer in the Appropriations Committee.

Yet along the way, Davis drew promises from the bill’s sponsors, Republican Reps. Chris Latvala of Clearwater and Will Robinson of Bradenton, as well as a commitment from Republican Rep. Brad Drake, who chaired the Select Subcommittee on Authorized Gaming Activity, to present a full bill incorporating Davis’ proposed amendments in the 2022 Session.

Rouson got similar pledges from Appropriations Committee Chair Kelli Stargel of Lakeland.

Plakon intends to introduce bills to enhance funding for the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling based on a scaling index, starting from a floor minimum of annual net revenue by a gambling establishment.

“It’s not a secret that more gaming can lead to more social problems, so this would be a relatively small amount, millions, not tens of millions or billions, that can help with some of these situations,” Plakon said. “Next year will be my last Session. This has been a passion of mine for a decade now. I would love to leave my last session knowing we’re helping the families who are impacted. It’s families who are impacted by this, not just individuals.”

Florida’s gambling prevention program has not been updated since 2005 when it was initiated as a response to the legalization of slot machines in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Eight parimutuels in Broward and Miami-Dade counties will each contribute $250,000 annually to a trust fund that supports the state’s compulsive gambling response, for a total of $2 million a year. But the trust fund gets swept every year. Pinsky said the most ever provided was $1.2 million, and one year was less than $300,000. By law, the program may only market its services in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, though the hotline number now shows up on lottery tickets statewide.

The Seminole Tribe also contributes, but directly to the program, rather than to the trust fund. So the Seminole’s $1.5 million a year is the only money the Council can count on, to fund training programs for casino officials and staff the helpline around the clock.

And with whatever limited funds remain, the Council can put up a few billboards or maybe produce some public service announcements about the helpline.

Twenty-six other parimutuels that provide gambling do not contribute. Nor does the Florida Lottery.

Pinsky said the need for more support, “on the scale of 1 to 10, it’s a 10.” Yet, he’s confident lawmakers will take care of the program next Session.

“When you have commitments from the leadership, the way that we have, and the way a number of folks expressed their desire to do something, that was a great signal for us to just wait, and our turn will come,” Pinsky said. “And it’s going to be this fall.”

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].


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