10:00 PM PST on Thursday, March 11, 2010

By JIM MILLER
Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO – Compulsive gambling experts had a ready opinion Thursday on whether California should legalize online poker to raise money along the lines of what an Inland tribe proposes: Bad idea.

California’s first-ever statewide conference on problem gambling drew academics, therapists and government regulators, as well as former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, whose new book “Personal Foul” describes how he bet on basketball games.

Speakers described increasing numbers of compulsive gamblers even as government funding for treatment programs remains far below demand.

The two-day gathering during National Problem Gambling Week comes as talk continues in the Capitol on a proposal by the Morongo Band of Mission Indians near Banning and others to create a “tribal intrastate Internet poker consortium” that someday could let people use laptop computers and iPhones to play poker online.

In return, the state would get a share of the revenue, although it’s unclear how much.

“It is desperate for money,” said Whittier College Professor I. Nelson Rose, a gambling law expert.

Riverside County, home to several tribal casinos, leads the state in treatment of compulsive gamblers.

About two-dozen employees of the county Department of Mental Health’s Substance Abuse Program have been certified by the state to treat problem gamblers thanks to a grant from the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, which runs a casino near Temecula, officials said.

“I think it would be a tremendously bad idea,” William W. Harris, a prevention services coordinator for the county, said of legalizing online card games. Therapists, he said, already see patients — mainly young and homebound people — who play online poker through illegal offshore sites.

There is no active bill to legalize online poker. At a Senate hearing last month, experts said legalization could take several forms, such as putting licenses out to bid or giving a contract to one provider, as the Morongo tribe proposes.

Patrick Dorinson, a spokesman for the tribe, said tens of thousands of people already are playing illegal poker sites.

The state is missing out on a share of that revenue. Some of the money could provide more services for compulsive gamblers, he said.

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