HELENA — According to Department of Justice data, during fiscal years spanning 2018 to 2021, the State of Montana received nearly $255 million in tax revenue from video gaming machines that feature games like keno and video poker.
Revenue from machines has a tax rate of 15%, meaning in total, video gambling machines took in nearly 1.7 billion dollars during that four-year span. According to the DOJ's gambling control division, Montana features over "1,400 licensed gambling operators" scattered across every county in Montana with a total of "more than 16,000 video gambling machines."
The Montana Supreme Court ruled video keno machines were legal in 1976, and since then Montanans have been trying their luck. While the machines are meant to be a form of entertainment, for some they're a problem.
"I liked to play the machines, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But I could also tell that it was getting — I was doing more, spending more time and more money; all the time," said Wendell 'Garry' Rafter.
Rafter said the last time he sat down at a machine was over 20 years ago when his wife realized there might be more to Rafter's gambling than just entertainment.
"My wife helped me realize that. At that time, I was working for the state and they had three free counseling sessions. And I went to counseling and they didn't do much for the compulsive gambling. They were good sessions, but not much about compulsive gambling. So, I needed — I knew I needed some more help, if I was going to really get into this, and I found a [Gambler's Anonymous] meeting here in Helena," said Rafter.
Now, over 22 years later, Rafter says he seldom misses a meeting. The Helena-based Gambler's Anonymous meetings are every Monday night at 6 p.m. at St. Peter's Episcopal Church and prior to the pandemic, Rafter says the group was garnering approximately a dozen people regularly to support one another in their endeavors to steer clear of gambling.
Rafter says attendance at meetings has dropped, but he still believes there are plenty of people out there that suffer from compulsive gambling.
"If all the compulsive gamblers in Helena, Montana came to our meeting, we'd have to meet at the Civic Center," said Rafter.
Gambler's Anonymous is one of the two resources the DOJ recommends for problem gambling treatment, the other is the Montana Council on Problem Gambling. MTN made multiple failed attempts to contact the MCPG, going as far as calling the non-profit's problem gambling helpline in an effort to reach someone affiliated with the MCPG.
When the call was picked up, MTN spoke with someone affiliated with the Deleware Council on Problem Gambling. MTN reached out to the National Council on Problem Gambling to determine why calls made to the Montana helpline are picked up in Deleware, and according to the NCPG, it's actually more common than one would think.
"It's very common. Especially in states that have very little problem gambling funding," said NCPG Director of Communications Cait Huble. "It's pretty common actually, states kind of rerouting calls. I think 24 states handle their own calls in state and 26 outsource to another state."
According to 2019 tax filings, MCPG notes that Montana does not require businesses or industries that profit from gambling to contribute to problem gambling treatment resources, meaning the MCPG is funded solely by donations.
In 2019, MCPG reported receiving just over $220 thousand dollars in contributions and used just under half of that to pay for services provided to problem gamblers by the non-profit.
The tax filings note that there were five volunteer that held director positions, that worked on average one to five hours per week with the organization. One member, listed as an officer in the filings, worked full-time for the non-profit and received a paycheck for their services in 2019.
Tax filings for years after 2019 are not available at this time, and MTN is unable to confirm whether several members of the board are still with the program after repeated failed attempts to contact the organization.
To gain insight on how the MCPG works to help problem gamblers, MTN spoke with Robert 'Bob' Piccolo, a licensed clinical social worker in Helena who is contracted by the non-profit to provide treatment.
Piccolo confirmed that he has been working with problem gamblers that are referred to him for treatment by the MCPG for nearly 20 years, and from his perspective everything appears to be operating as it should.
"I like the way it has been, compared to the earlier times that I was doing this. I've been allowed a lot more freedom to kind of do it the way I would like, which means more individual counseling for me," said Piccolo.
According to the Mayo Clinic, it's unclear what factors contribute to people developing a gambling problem recommends those who think they might have a gambling problem, seek help early in an effort to prevent their gambling habits from getting worse, a sentiment that Rafter stands by wholeheartedly.
"Come to meetings, listen to the stories and see if there's something that people say that you can pick up on and say, 'I can use that tool in my toolbox to help me not gamble.' And the biggest thing is, there's always a place for the gambling money, besides the machine. I don't care how much you've got, or how little you have, there's always a place for that money besides gambling," said Rafter.
Now, Rafter says knowing that statement to be true, along with support from his peers and his family, have kept him going all this time.
"The thing that really, I think, got me was how much time I was spending away from my family, when I could have been with my family and that really became important to me, and you know what? I found out that there was a place for every damn dime I was spending at the casino," said Rafter with a smile. "That has kept me going in that direction."
If you or someone you know struggles with compulsive gambling, contact information for organizations that can provide help are below:
Gambler’s Anonymous Billings hotline: (406) 860-8287
Gambler’s Anonymous Helena hotline: (406) 431-1663
National Council on Problem Gambling hotline: 1 (800) 522-4700
Montana Council on Problem Gambling toll free: (888) 552-9076
Montana Council on Problem Gambling’s 24 hour helpline: (888) 900-9979