JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Thousands of gamblers who decided to ban themselves from Missouri casinos could return under changes approved Wednesday by the Missouri Gaming Commission.
Regulators voted unanimously to relax the state's voluntary exclusion program, allowing people who have chosen to bar themselves for life from Missouri casinos to have the prohibition lifted after at least five years. People could opt to rejoin the banned list later, but it would mean a lifetime prohibition.
"Many people have indicated they aren't ready to commit to a lifetime ban but are interested in some other period of self-exclusion," Gaming Commission Chairman James Mathewson said. "We also needed to refine some of our rules regarding procedures, including streamlining the application process."
The Gaming Commission said there are 16,148 people on the self-exclusion list and that 11,427 of them could be eligible to remove themselves starting March 31.
Missouri developed a self-exclusion program in 1996, and it was intended to be a recovery tool for problem gamblers. It applies to Missouri casinos and is open to people living in Missouri and other states. Individuals who participate can be charged with a misdemeanor for criminal trespassing if they are found in a casino in Missouri.
Regulators said Missouri was the first to develop such a program and that at least 10 other states also now have voluntary self-exclusion lists. Iowa and Michigan are the only other states that had allowed only a lifetime ban. Missouri officials said some states, including Indiana and Pennsylvania, allow gamblers to return after a year. Others such as Mississippi allow removal from the banned list after five years.
Keith Spare, chairman of the Missouri Council on Problem Gambling Concerns, said the changes approved by the Gaming Commission increase concerns about the services that are available to gamblers, noting that funding for gambling addiction counseling has been cut over the past several years. Spare said allowing gamblers to lift their voluntary bans should increase revenue but that some people returning to casinos are likely to face problems.
"The reality is that it's not going to have a huge impact on the general population. But it's going to have a devastating impact for those who are addicted gamblers," he said.
Gaming Commission spokeswoman LeAnn McCarty said changes to the self-ban list were driven by the public's requests for additional options, not money. She said the regulators received about 300 phone calls and more than a dozen letters since possible changes were discussed in August and that a majority supported an option for a shorter self-ban period.
"Revenue had not one iota involvement in our discussion," she said.
The Missouri Gaming Association, an industry trade group, said it did not initiate the changes and remained neutral over whether regulators should approve them.
Missouri Gaming Commission: http://www.mgc.dps.mo.gov/