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Thursday, March 20, 2014 12:01 am

Gambling expansion proposal downsized

Possibility of slots at Illinois State Fairgrounds remains

 Following Gov. Pat Quinn’s 2012 veto of a bill to expand gambling in Illinois, a Chicago-area lawmaker is ready to try again, this time with a pair of scaled-down proposals.

Rep. Robert Rita, D-Blue Island, announced last week he would file two amendments to an existing bill in the Illinois General Assembly, presenting two distinct options for an expansion of the state’s gambling scene. In one proposal, only Chicago would get a casino, while the second proposal calls for a much broader expansion in several areas of the state.    

“This issue has been around a long time already in a number of these regions,” Rita said. “They’ve been looking for revenue and an economic engine, something that produces jobs and puts money back in to the state and the regions. This is about putting people to work and educating our kids.”

 Anti-gambling groups, however, say even the scaled-down proposals are toxic.

Currently, Illinois has 10 riverboat casinos that offer up to 1,200 “positions.” A position can be one electronic gambling machine, while a craps table counts as 10 positions and other table games count as five positions. The state’s currently authorized 12,000 positions at casinos don’t include video gaming machines that began to be licensed in Illinois in 2012.

While some prospective casino operators have pushed the state to allow more casinos – and thus more positions – horse racing tracks have lamented the decline in their business, and some blame other forms of gambling. To appease horse racing tracks, some lawmakers have proposed allowing tracks to feature their own electronic gaming machines.

Rita’s first proposal deals only with the planned casino in Chicago, allowing between 4,000 and 10,000 positions there. Under this proposal, horse racing tracks would not be granted licenses to offer electronic gaming machines, which differs from the gambling expansion bill that previously passed the General Assembly but didn’t get the governor’s approval. Quinn vetoed that bill in August 2012, saying it lacked enough ethical safeguards to prevent corruption. The governor called for limits on campaign contributions from gaming licensees and casino managers, as well as bringing the proposed Chicago casino under the oversight of the Illinois Gaming Board.

Rita’s proposals, contained in amendments to House Bill 1739, attempt to address both critiques. Under the proposals, anyone with an ownership stake of more than 1 percent in a gaming operation would not be allowed to make campaign contributions. The previous bill set that threshold at 7.5 percent. Additionally, the proposed Chicago casino would be owned by the state instead of the City of Chicago, meaning the gaming board would regulate it.

Rita’s second proposal offers casinos in Chicago, the south suburbs, Lake County, Winnebago County and Vermilion County. The planned Chicago casino would be authorized for between 4,000 and 6,000 positions, while the remaining new casinos would be allowed 1,200 positions. Existing casinos would not be granted any additional positions.  Rita says the new casinos would be situated in areas that would allow them to recapture gambling revenue that is lost to other states.

The second proposal also allows electronic gaming machines at horse racing tracks. Those in Chicago would be allowed up to 600 positions, while those outside Chicago could have up to 450 positions. That may allow the installation of electronic gaming machines at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

Both of Rita’s proposals would see revenue split evenly between the state and the municipality that includes each new casino or the proposed slots at horse tracks. The state could only spend its share on capital construction projects and education, with the additional educational dollars going to schools on a per-student basis independent of existing school funding formulas. Municipalities could only spend their share of the revenue on capital construction projects and pensions.

Anita Bedell, executive director of Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, says Rita’s revised proposals still don’t relieve her group’s concerns that expanded gambling will bring more crime and more dependence. Rita says his proposals eliminated numerous earmarks for other projects that were contained within the previous bill, but he kept a proposed $5 million fund to address gambling addiction. Still, Bedell isn’t convinced that will help.

“It’s still a massive expansion of gambling,” Bedell said. “When you expand that much, you’re going to create so many problems that that money won’t even begin to address them.”  

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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