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Head of North Dakota gambling addiction program seeks funding as lawmakers consider sports betting

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Lisa Vig, director of the Gamblers Choice program at Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, urged state lawmakers to set aside funding for gambling addiction treatment and prevention services Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — The head of a state-funded gambling addiction program implored North Dakota lawmakers to set aside money for treatment and prevention if they follow a national trend and expand betting options to sporting events Monday, Jan. 28.

The House Judiciary Committee considered two nearly identical bills allowing charitable gaming organizations to offer sports betting Monday, the first time lawmakers debated the legislation since the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for states to legalize athletic gambling last year.

One bill would simply allow licensed organizations to offer bets on the outcome of sporting events, while another would limit gambling to events in which competitors “receive compensation in excess of actual expenses” for their participation.

Fargo Republican Rep. Thomas Beadle, the chief author of the latter bill, said that language is meant to exclude collegiate sports. North Dakota has no major professional sports teams.

“As much as many of us would to love to be able to bet on the Bison or on some (University of North Dakota) hockey, because of the potential conflict of interest within the state … I thought that it would be pertinent to just keep the restriction on professional (sports),” Beadle said.

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The primary sponsor of the other bill, Bismarck Republican Rep. Jason Dockter, said he left collegiate sports in his legislation partly because of the popular men's basketball tournament played every March.

The NCAA “opposes all forms of legal and illegal sports wagering, which has the potential to undermine the integrity of sports contests and jeopardizes the welfare of student-athletes and the intercollegiate athletics community,” according to its website.

The North Dakota constitution bans gambling except for charitable gaming and the multi-state lottery. State law includes prohibitions on sports gambling but does allow sports pools and betting on horse racing.

Compacts reached with North Dakota tribes several years ago appear to already allow them to conduct sports betting under the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling.

The court ruled last year a federal law largely prohibiting sports gambling was unconstitutional. Seven states currently offer legal sports betting, as do tribal casinos in New Mexico, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and more states are looking to join them.

Lisa Vig, director of the Gamblers Choice program at Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, urged state lawmakers to earmark money for treatment and prevention services if they legalize sports bets. State law mandates the lottery transfer $320,000 per year for a gambling disorder prevention and treatment fund, and the lion's share of that is used for the LSS contract, but Vig said they don't receive money from charitable gaming organizations.

Vig said about 2 percent to 3 percent of people struggle with problem gambling. Her organization has three part-time counselors who cover the entire state.

“It follows that, as we increase gambling options in North Dakota, we must at the same time increase the availability of prevention and treatment services,” she said in prepared testimony.

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A fiscal note prepared by the North Dakota attorney general’s office predicted both bills considered Monday would cost more than $1 million in the coming two-year budget cycle due to new auditor positions and a system to track sports betting. The office said it was unclear how much revenue the legislation would generate but predicted it would be significant.

The state’s gaming tax generated $6.5 million in the 2015-17 biennium, according to the attorney general’s office.

Proponents said lawmakers should regulate and tax a form of gambling that's already taking place. But Mark Jorritsma, executive director of the Family Policy Alliance of North Dakota, warned sports betting wouldn’t be a “financial panacea” for the state.

“Yes, the state of North Dakota will gain more revenue, but remember that with last May’s ruling we are not the only ones eyeing sports betting,” he said.

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