JEFFERSON CITY - A tearful St. Louis area woman went from an affluent lifestyle to supporting herself and two children with welfare because her husband gambled away the family's savings.
Liesa Hartin, 38, urged a Missouri House committee on Monday not to repeal the $500 limit on personal losses per casino visit.
"The availability of the gambling boats is when his addiction kicked in," Hartin said of her husband, a former professional baseball player, who recently entered rehabilitation and is on his 34th day of being clean of gambling.
The House Ways and Means Committee listened to Hartin and numerous other witnesses testify on both sides of a gambling bill that proponents and opponents say would make gambling in Missouri more accessible.
Besides removing the loss limit, the bill, sponsored by Rep. O.L. Shelton, D-St. Louis, would allow riverboat patrons to enter the casinos at any time. Currently, they must wait until scheduled "cruise times" to board. If the loss limit is repealed, patrons would be able to gamble with normal currency instead of the existing system where money is exchanged for chips.
Several opponents voiced their feelings that Missourians have been forced into allowing more and more riverboat casinos into the state since gambling was legalized in 1992.
"These safeguards - the $500 limit and the cruise times - were promised to citizens when they agreed to put the casinos in the state of Missouri," said Steve Taylor, executive director of Casino Watch.
"The rules have been changed so many times since the vote," said Don Wideman, executive director of the Missouri Baptist Convention.
Proponents of the measure argued that repealing the current rules would not further hinder compulsive gamblers. Chuck Micciche, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, spoke in favor of the bill, which would allocate $1 billion to a compulsive gambling fund.
"If this person is exceeding a loss on a cruise, he or she will simply sign up for the next cruise," he said. "We feel that a set amount of a loss limit will not really help us out in helping the pathological gambler. It could even spur them on."
Supporters also said Missouri is losing tourists to adjacent states that don't have loss limits.
And they hope to attract more high stakes players, said Scott Nielson, executive vice president and general counsel for Station Casinos.
"They are certainly people who can afford to lose $500 in a short period of time," Nielson said of the high stakes clientele. "Currently in Missouri, all of those players go somewhere else."
Of the 32 states with casino gambling, Missouri is the only one that imposes a loss limit, sponsor Shelton said.
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