As Illinois expands gambling, it will also try to determine how many gambling addicts it has
Before he managed to kick his gambling habit in 2014, Chris -- a 62-year-old lawyer and grandfather -- saw a good chunk of his retirement account disappear at the craps tables of Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.
"I estimated that I lost somewhere between $600,000 and $700,000," he said last week in the living room of his house in Chicago's Portage Park neighborhood.
With help from his gambling-addiction counselor, Chris says he hasn't gambled in five years and is confident he will resist the temptation of all the new opportunities to bet that Illinois lawmakers approved this month.
But Chris and other recovering gambling addicts say they fear the impact the expansion will have on others who still are hooked. And they say more gambling opportunities inevitably create new addicts.
A review of Springfield's 816-page gambling bill by ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ found that the number of state-sponsored gambling "positions" -- seats to place a bet inside a casino, bar or racetrack -- will jump from almost 44,000 to nearly 80,000.
The bill's provisions include allowing more casinos, more video gambling machines with higher betting limits and a new way to legally wager: sports betting.
"There's going to be gambling on every corner," said Chris, who asked that his last name not be used in this story to spare his family embarrassment. "I'm a Bears season-ticket holder. I'm going to be able to bet on the Bears before the game. It's crazy what the expansion is doing."
Democratic Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has indicated that he will sign the gambling bill. The first-term governor and lawmakers say they hope to shore up the state's battered finances and pay for long-overdue capital projects with hundreds of millions of dollars a year in new revenue from gambling, though revenue projections of 2009's gambling expansion fell short.
But Pritzker said he has not ignored the state's gambling addicts and has budgeted $6.8 million in the coming year to fund programs that could help them cope with their habit.
In February, a ProPublica Illinois-WBEZ investigation found the state had failed to address the issue of gambling addiction in any meaningful way, even as lawmakers approved a huge gambling expansion a decade ago.
Illinois is one of only a few states that have chosen not to track the rate of gambling addiction. Now, though, Pritzker administration officials say they plan to conduct a statewide study to measure addiction -- the first such study in nearly three decades.
A 750 percent funding increase
The $6.8 million that's been set aside to help with gambling addiction was part of the budget that lawmakers also approved this month.
The amount would represent an increase of more than 750 percent compared with the roughly $800,000 a year that Illinois had been spending to help compulsive gamblers.
There currently are 10 casinos in the state, but the opportunities to bet grew exponentially when lawmakers and then-Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, legalized video gambling machines in 2009.
Now there are 7,000 places that have as many as five video gambling machines each in 1,000 towns across Illinois. The total number of machines outside of casinos has surpassed 31,000, and gamblers have lost about $5.8 billion at the devices, state records show.
When they legalized video gambling, lawmakers promised they would provide $1.5 million a year for addiction services. But they quietly removed the provision of the bill that guaranteed the funding.
And much of what was allocated by Springfield has gone unspent.
Pritzker said last week that he was well aware of that sad track record as his administration crafted its first budget. "There were not a lot of dollars for (gambling addiction programs) in prior budgets," he said. "We've expanded it. But in prior budgets, you know, it's only about $1.5 million, and they weren't even spending that."
Advocates for compulsive gamblers say the state has not conducted a survey delving into the number of gambling addicts in nearly 30 years.
The increased funding will be used to "strengthen services" for gambling addicts and to conduct a "needs assessment," said Kia Coleman, assistant secretary for programs at the department.
"That will allow us to really get a very clear picture of what the state of gambling disorders is here in Illinois," Coleman said.
The state has created a new website for gambling addicts who are seeking help, www.WeKnowtheFeeling.org. Those seeking help also can call the state's hotline, 1-800-GAMBLER, or text ILGAMB to 53342.
Only 63 counselors
When he finally managed to quit betting, Chris, the recovering gambler from Chicago, went to a rehab center in Louisiana and then spent a month at a suburban Maywood treatment center called the Way Back Inn.
The group's executive director, Anita Pindiur, said she is excited about the funding increase in the new state budget, and she has lots of ideas of how the money could be put to the best use.
She is one of only 63 people in the state credentialed as problem and compulsive gambling counselors, according to the Illinois Certification Board.
Like Chris, Pindiur is wary of the state's plans to expand gambling. "I don't think we have enough trained professionals to deal with the potential problem that might be coming," she said.