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Thursday, March 24, 2011 06:30 pm

Backing away from legalized video poker

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A big question on a lot of Statehouse minds right now is: Why would Senate President John Cullerton all of a sudden decide to string out his members yet again on a dollar a pack cigarette tax hike when he surely knows that the House will kill it for the umpteenth time?

Cullerton wants to raise money from the cigarette tax so he can kill off the controversial law legalizing video gaming in taverns, clubs and truck stops. Video gaming proceeds are supposed to subsidize part of the state’s massive capital construction plan, but the video gaming program hasn’t gotten off the ground after two years of preparations because the Illinois Gaming Board is taking its time to develop strict standards.

Part of the answer is that Cullerton loves the cigarette tax hike idea in and of itself. The man just downright loathes cigarettes and believes that raising the tax would cause people to stop smoking and prevent kids from starting.

But when the four legislative leaders sit down to cut a deal, they’re supposed to stick to that deal unless the other leaders go along with a change in the deal. The capital plan was just such an agreement. Breaking a pact like that is just not done. Ever.

You rarely see stories about the tax and fee hikes that fund the state’s construction program, and you don’t see many articles about some of the more questionable projects in the package. That’s because all the leaders vowed to each other that they wouldn’t stir up any trouble. Those vows are usually as solemn as any priest’s, so they’re never violated, but Cullerton is now doing it. Why?

Cullerton is said to be tired of Democrats being blamed for the video poker law, which has been blasted by most editorial pages in the state. “Maybe now they’ll understand that it was the Republicans who wanted this, not us,” explained a Cullerton aide last week.

The Republicans actually came up with the idea of legalizing video gaming in taverns, clubs and truck stops. But the Democrats have worn the jacket for the much-maligned program because they’re in the majority and the hugely controversial Cook County Democratic Party Chairman Joe Berrios was one of the top lobbyists for the video gaming industry. 

It didn’t help matters much when former mobster turned government informant Frank Calabrese, Jr. told Fox Chicago the other day that he believed infiltrating the video poker industry would be a piece of cake.

“I mean, I laughed when I seen that,” Calabrese told Fox’s Dane Placko about the video poker legalization measure. “I mean, really. Why? I could go back there and show you how fast I could get in the middle of it,” he said from his Arizona house.

“It’s math 101, okay? I’m not gonna go in there and put my name on a license and buy a bar and ask for three machines. I’m coming to you who’s totally legit and say you’re gonna buy the machines from this guy, and this is what you’re gonna pay him and that guy’s gonna help me in some way,” Calabrese said.

In the same story, former FBI organized crime director Tom Bourgeois told the channel that the General Assembly had opened the doors to the Outfit. “You’re just providing an avenue for organized crime to re-root itself and find ways to become more powerful. It’s just too easy to do that and, of course, the legislation provides opportunity for very little oversight,” Bourgeois claimed.

In reality, neither Calabrese nor Bourgeois are likely correct. For one thing, the current “amusement purposes only” video poker machines (most of which actually pay out in the real world) are already connected to the mob in one way or another. Legalization is seen by proponents as a way to get the mob out, not let them in.

To that end, the Illinois Gaming Board has spent almost two years attempting to devise a fail-safe plan to prevent organized crime from sticking its nose into the new business. A mobster just couldn’t strong-arm a tavern owner into using a particular machine, as Calabrese claimed, because machine distributors will have to undergo vigorous background checks and deal with strict government oversight -- neither of which happens today.

So, publicly disassociating himself from video poker and letting Republicans take the lead in keeping the law on the books has real public relations and partisan advantages for the Senate president. And that’s why he’s doing it.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.

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