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Budget Concerns Cast Shadow over Sports Betting

When the first sports betting kiosks open in the coming months, the District stands to collect what’s estimated to be $90 million over the next four years.

In December, the D.C. Council voted to legalize the sports betting industry, dedicating a portion of those funds to early childhood education and violence prevention programs. But Mayor Muriel Bowser’s fiscal 2020 budget nullified that arrangement, moving the $7 million earmarked for early childhood education and violence prevention to the city’s general fund — a move that some elected officials say betrays the trust of city residents.

“Everyone who testified who didn’t have a business interest in sports betting came to talk about the importance of the investments in early childhood education and crime prevention,” said Council member Robert White (D-At Large). “Selling sports betting as a funding mechanism for these desperately needed programs, yet during the budget process, redirecting these same funds to be used for general purposes is a classic bait-and-switch.

“There are few things we need more desperately right now than early childhood education for families and crime prevention for safe communities,” White said. “Since the mayor has proposed to use this money for several different purposes, I am not optimistic that I can find a way to pull it back at this point. District residents really got screwed here.”

While childhood educational offerings in D.C. have steadily increased over the last decade, many parents still struggle to clinch a space for their 3- and 4-year olds. In the violence interruption sector, groups gear up for a strategy rooted in restoration and respect for neighborhood dynamics, but relatively young in age.

Bowser’s 2020 budget includes a $52 million expansion of early child care at Old Randle Highlands, Old Miner and Thurgood Marshall. It also allocated $3.3 million to the Office of Neighborhood Engagement and Safety, under which the city’s violence interruption program operates.

“In the mayor’s budget, we funded for violence prevention four times higher than the designation from the D.C. Council would’ve gone,” City Administrator Rashad Young told reporters during a March 27 press briefing at the Wilson Building.

“The reason is that we undesignated the resources is that general government activity should be taken from the general fund,” Young said. “When you do the opposite, you link that resources to a specific activity. What the council did was take a fixed amount for violence prevention. Now it won’t stay fixed, and this gives us the ability to increase the resources.”

Other concerns about finances have cropped up along the road to a fully operating sports betting infrastructure.

When the council voted to skip the contract bidding process in February, the D.C. Lottery, via Greece-based operator Intralot, entered the role as key coordinator. The entity will sell licenses to sports books at arenas and stadiums over the next five years. Some critics said that taxpayers would be further penalized by what they predict will be a monopolized gambling industry.

Gambling regulations have been scheduled to be available for public comment by June and final approval in July. By the fall, patrons will more than likely find kiosks in Capital One Arena in Northwest and Nationals Park in Southeast. District officials predict the development of a smartphone app by next January.

Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said that however sports betting revenue leaves the District’s bank account, the current financial structure reflects a long tradition in which government agencies fund beneficial programs with revenue from controversial recreational activities.

“Gambling can raise a ton of money for government, but how government allocates that is a difficult issue,” said Whyte, who counted among the key proponents of dedicated funding for gambling addiction treatment under the D.C. Department of Health.

On April 10, Whyte and his colleagues will brief members of Congress on gambling addiction. He divulged plans to collaborate with faith leaders and advocates to further educate the public about gambling addiction’s connection to substance abuse and other public health issues.

Such efforts, he said, could amplify the health department’s work with the $200,000 that has been earmarked.

“When we navigated the legislation, we made sure public health funding was placed,” Whyte said. “Violence prevention didn’t get added the same way, but [in that situation] I would want to make sure the revenue was fixed and dedicated to a specific agency.”

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