Opinion: Washington DC Failed Citizens by Ending Betting Tax Allocation to Problem Gambling Treatment

  • The law earmarks $200,000 in sports betting tax revenue to problem gambling treatment
  • DC Council approved the FY 2024 budget, which stripped the required funding
  • The Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) has never used any of the money
  • DBH claims that its current mental health services can handle gambling addiction
  • The government is shirking its responsibility to help DC residents
Potomac River with the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial in the background
The $200,000 in sports betting tax revenue earmarked for gambling addiction treatment each year has been removed from the Washington, DC budget for 2024. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

Government got what it wanted

When sports betting was legalized in Washington, DC, part of the law required that $200,000 of the revenue that the District received from the pastime go to “to prevent, treat, and research gambling addiction.” The law has not changed, but those support dollars are no more.

This past week, the DC Council’s Committee of the Whole unanimously approved the 2024 fiscal year budget, which strips the annual earmark for the Department of Behavioral Health (DBH).

DC is getting what it wants from sports betting – that sweet, sweet, tax revenue

In what feels like a “I’ve got mine, f**k you” situation, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s budget was actually larger than what her office originally presented to the council, but nonetheless, finding $200,000 among billions was just not possible. Well, I’m sure it was, but DC is getting what it wants from sports betting – that sweet, sweet, tax revenue – and now doesn’t feel the need to take on the social responsibility.

Bowser’s budget even removed other allocations of sports betting revenue, such as for schools and affordable housing, but those were put back. As Councilmember Brianne Nadeau tweeted in March: “I voted against sports betting for just this reason. Politicians are lured by being able to dedicate the revenue to specific projects. That doesn’t address the negative impact of legalized gambling. And now w/this proposal we also lose any benefits of the directed revenue.”

The money wasn’t used, anyway

The removal of problem gambling funding is at least slightly understandable because of the craziest part of this whole mess: the DBH has never used a single cent of it for its intended purpose. As such, the department told the DC Council that it didn’t need the money.

DBH’s Chief of Staff Phyllis Jones told DCist that her agency already has the ability to help problem gamblers through its existing programs, though those programs are not specifically tailored toward gambling addiction.

“DBH has certified about 50 community-based providers located across D.C. to deliver mental health services,” Jones aid. “Several types of therapy used to treat gambling disorders, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), group therapy, and family therapy, are available through our provider network.”

Keith Whyte, Executive Director of the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), says that’s all a crock of shit.

The city therefore cannot be providing ethical or effective problem gambling treatment.”

“We strongly believe treatment for gambling addiction requires specific training and certification. We are not aware of any personnel within DBH or their vendors who have any such training or certification,” he said. “The city therefore cannot be providing ethical or effective problem gambling treatment.”

In the meantime, as the DBH collected $200,000 per year and let it just sit there, problem gambling rates in DC appear to have been increasing. The NCPG told the DC Council that its helpline received 4,892 calls from local residents in 2022, a 35% in increase from 2021. And 2021’s figure was 109% higher than that of 2020.

Government isn’t doing its job

What’s so infuriating about both the removal of the DBH funding and the DBH’s refusal to use it to aid problem gamblers (which, of course, contributed to the elimination of said funding), is that it is an example of the government refusing to do the absolute bare minimum to protect the people. The government is flat-out shirking its responsibilities, and for pennies.

“We believe any time government legalizes gambling they have an ethical and economic obligation to put some of their profits back into mitigating the harm that’s created by legalized gambling,” said Whyte.

DC leaves thousands of people without help or hope”

Problem and responsible gambling advocate Brianne Doura-Schawohl told Sports Handle that the situation is “disheartening and maddening,” adding: “….individuals who are currently struggling or will struggle in the future deserve support from a trained professional. In their decision to repeal funding for vital health services, DC leaves thousands of people without help or hope.”

At least there’s the self-exclusion list, which was launched in May 2020. But even that was botched horribly. For the first two years, the forward thinkers at the DC Lottery required people to go to the DC Lottery’s office to get on the list. You know, because let’s make it easy to gamble from home, but not easy to prevent yourself from gambling. A grand total of two people put themselves on the exclusion list in that time. An online option was finally offered in January 2022, but in about a year, only 14 people used it.

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