The political process is rarely easy. Even the most common-sense bills can die for a litany of reasons and at different stages of the process.
But HB 1108 in Virginia was one of those rare occasions. The bill, which would add school instruction on gambling addiction to existing curriculum on drug and alcohol abuse, coasted through a subcommittee on a unanimous vote, made its way through the Committee on Education by a margin of 20-2, and passed in the state’s House of Delegates with a 97-3 vote, all in a week’s time in February.
In the Virginia Senate, it did not receive a single no vote. It moved through the Committee on Education and Health by a 15-0 margin March 3 and on March 8 passed in the Senate with a 39-0 vote. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has until April 11 to sign the bill into law.
“This process was relatively straightforward,” said Virginia Delegate Sam Rasoul, a Democrat, who sponsored the bill. “It was met with no opposition, and by that I mean no entity — no one testified against it. It was just presented in a common-sense way. We already teach about addiction, so why don’t we integrate gambling into that, too?”
It stands to reason, and problem gaming advocates will explain to anyone who will listen, that as gambling (specifically online sports betting) expands and is at the fingertips of more people across the country each year, educating the most vulnerable should come with it. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), high schoolers “have twice the rate of gambling problems as adults.” The hope from advocates is that Virginia, as the first state to pass such legislation, is just the start.
“The normalization of gambling in our culture has to come with normalization of prevention and education programs,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the NCPG. “For something like alcohol, we talk to kids about it, we talk in church about it, we talk in school about it. We know youth are exposed to a ton of gambling and alcohol ads, and they’ve seen their parents having a drink at home, but now they’re seeing them make a bet at home.
“If we’re going to a public-health model, this sort of educational initiative is a good first step.”
“This is about to start a wave,” added consultant Brianne Doura-Schawohl, who is involved in problem gaming efforts across the country. “A unanimous vote [in the Virginia Senate] really speaks volumes to the problems policy makers are having with this market.”
What worked in VA hasn’t worked elsewhere
But as smoothly as the legislative process went in Virginia, similar efforts have stalled in other states.
In Maryland, Republican Sen. Bryan Simonaire has filed a similar bill in three consecutive sessions, and it has yet to get through both branches of the legislature.
Simonaire’s bill for 2022, SB 363, has been sent to committee but has yet to make any progress there. In 2021, the bill stalled in committee, and in 2020, the bill passed through the Senate with a 44-2 vote but did not advance out of committee in the House.
So why has a bill that passed through the Senate overwhelmingly in 2020 hit these roadblocks?
“I simply cannot get a vote by the committee chair. … If we had the vote, we could pass it,” Simonaire said. “The main thrust of opposition is about a mandated curriculum. If you mandate one thing, you might mandate others.”
The bill calls for the Maryland Department of Education to “develop a program … on the dangers of gambling and gambling addiction” in high schools, which is slightly different from Virginia’s, where instruction on gambling addiction would be folded into its current curriculum on addiction.
“It is a concern that comes up, about what we should mandate,” Rasoul said. “In this case [in Virginia], we already say there must be addiction programming, and this bill would further expand it, as opposed to trying to introduce something completely new and make space for that.”
Simonaire views it as an obligation for Maryland, as a gaming state, to add preventative measures, especially for an industry that is generating so much revenue.
“The tax revenue we receive from the gaming industry is more than all our other business taxes combined,” said Simonaire, whose father “died penniless” after struggling with gambling addiction late in life. “The education system has a moral obligation to address the other side. Unfortunately, with government, we often are reacting to problems after they occur, and this is preventative.”
Whyte made the same point, but with a more dire analogy.
“In many states it’s a triage approach,” he explained. “People are falling off a cliff, and it’s like driving an ambulance to the bottom of the cliff instead of building a fence at the top.”
Despite the challenges, Simonaire is still hopeful.
“We have two weeks left [in the legislative session], and we’ve passed two bills in the last month or so where we got them through in three days,” he said. “If there’s a will, we can do it.”
WV lawmakers take a different approach
In West Virginia, a bill to address educating youth on gambling addiction was tied to a statute that requires state educators to “provide students a basic understanding of personal finance.”
HB 4812 was sponsored by Democratic Delegate Sean Hornbuckle and Republican Delegate Larry Pack and called for a “personal finance literacy pilot program to be implemented in at least five public high schools” for the 2022-2023 school year, with “information concerning the nature of gambling and problem gambling” part of the curriculum.
The bill was not addressed by the House Education Committee, and the West Virginia legislative session ended March 12.
“For whatever reason, we’ve been stonewalled. For what reason? I can’t tell you, honestly,” explained Hornbuckle, who said he also tried to get gambling addiction education tacked on to another bill but was denied. “My bill did not leave committee. They didn’t even discuss it.”
Hornbuckle said he plans to file the bill again next legislative session.
“I think it’s definitely a worthy cause,” he said. “It’s one of those things that there can be no harm from it. So the question is, what’s the hesitation?”
Virginia made a first step, but bill is not perfect
While problem gaming advocates are happy to see an education bill addressing gambling addiction make its way through a state legislature, they acknowledge the Virginia bill is not ideal.
There is no specific funding for the bill, and the impact statement associated with it says, “Any cost to develop instruction concerning gambling can be absorbed by the Department of Education. Any fiscal impact to local school divisions is indeterminate.”
That’s not a welcome sign for advocates who have struggled to squeeze funds out of states for problem gaming programs across the country.
“It’s a little bit of an unfunded mandate, which probably means in a couple years we’ll have to pass it again with funding,” Whyte said. “And that means it could get sidelined, but gambling addiction gets sidelined, anyway.
“It sets a precedent, though. If we’re able to show impact or a lack of impact, that just creates a better argument. Virginia is making millions and millions. We can find the money.”
Doura-Schawohl said a better tactic would be to have educational programs “embedded” into expanded gambling legislation, but that is still a work in progress. Language similar to the West Virginia legislation on a financial literacy program in high schools was part of the discussion in the Missouri House but didn’t make the final versions of the sports betting bills that have moved over to the Senate. Doura-Schawohl and other advocates are hoping the language will be added to a Senate bill.