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Local

As Illinois expands gambling, it also will try to determine how many addicts it has

This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ Chicago.

ProPublica Illinois is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force. Sign up for our newsletter to get weekly updates written by our journalists.

Illinois’ massive gambling expansion will come with a big increase in funding to help people who become addicted to betting, as well as a study of how widespread problem gambling has become.

The newly approved state budget sets aside $6.8 million for addiction services. That’s a more than eightfold increase over what has been spent for gambling addicts in Illinois in recent years.

Officials in Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration also said last week that they finally would conduct a thorough study of the gambling problem in the state – the first such survey in nearly 30 years.

Those moves follow a ProPublica Illinois-WBEZ investigation in February, which 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 with gambling that has chosen not to track the rate of addiction.

Pritzker has indicated he will sign the gambling expansion bill that lawmakers sent him this month. The bill includes approval of six new casinos, more video gambling machines and a new way to wager legally: sports betting.

The first-term governor and legislators 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, although revenue projections of 2009’s gambling expansion fell short.

Pritzker and his aides say people who are hooked on gambling will have more help now, too.

“We’ve very much focused on that,” the Democratic governor said last week. “We’ve got to make sure that those addiction treatment and therapy opportunities are all over the state, wherever there may be people who have a gambling addiction problem.”

When they legalized video gambling a decade ago, lawmakers promised they would provide $1.5 million a year for addiction services. But much of what was allocated by Springfield has gone unspent, meaning the amount of state dollars going to agencies that serve addicts has actually decreased in recent years. The amount being spent is roughly $800,000 a year, records show.

That downward trend came even as video gambling machines opened at about 7,000 bars, truck stops, gambling parlors and other establishments across the state.

“There were not a lot of dollars for [gambling addiction programs] in prior budgets,” Pritzker said. “In prior budgets, you know, it’s only about $1.5 million, and they weren’t even spending that.”

A review of Springfield’s 816-page gambling bill by ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ finds 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. Experts say the expansion could increase addiction.

Recovering gambling addicts say they fear the impact the expansion will have on others.

Before he managed to kick his gambling habit in 2014, Chris – a 62-year-old lawyer and grandfather – bet heavily at the craps tables at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. He asked that his last name not be used to spare his family embarrassment.

“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 and a support group, Chris says he’s confident he will resist the temptation of all the new opportunities to bet.

“There’s going to be gambling on every corner,” Chris said. “I’m a [Chicago] 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.”

State officials said they also have 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.

When he finally quit betting, Chris spent a month at a halfway house in suburban Maywood called the Way Back Inn. The group’s executive director, Anita Pindiur, is one of only 63 people in the state credentialed as problem and compulsive gambling counselors.

“I don’t think we have enough trained professionals to deal with the potential problem that might be coming,” Pindiur said.

The day after the Illinois Senate approved the expansion, seven recovering addicts met at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting in a tiny Methodist church in Loves Park, near Rockford.

The Rockford area has 900 video gambling machines. And now, because of the new legislation, the city is in line to open a new casino with 2,000 more gambling positions.

Will, a retired worker at an auto plant, said he has been “free from gambling” for less than 14 months. He also asked that his last name not be used.

“I don’t care how much gambling comes to Illinois, as long as I’m not gambling, you know?” the 65-year-old said. “I have to worry about myself.”

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter for WBEZ. Jason Grotto is a reporter at ProPublica Illinois.

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