SPRINGIFELD – The regionally divisive concept of expanding gambling only in Chicago is expected to be a central issue in hearings Wednesday as an Illinois lawmaker works to ready a gambling package for a vote this spring.
One amendment to Rep. Bob Rita’s bill would create a Chicago casino with up to 10,000 spots for gamblers and strip the other four new casinos proposed in past measures.
His second plan would create a 4,000-spot Chicago casino and smaller 1,200-position ones in Rockford, Danville, Lake County and a suburb south of Chicago. It would also allow for 600 slot machines at each horse racetrack in Cook County and 450 per track outside the county, except for Fairmount Park in the Metro East suburbs of St. Louis.
“It’s part of the process of moving this forward,” Rita, a Blue Island Democrat said Tuesday. “We have never had a full in-depth conversation or a hearing of a Chicago-only option. I guess we’ll see tomorrow.”
Rita believes he can convince lawmakers that the Chicago-only option will benefit the entire state through a sharing of proceeds. Half of the revenue from the Chicago-based casino would help fund education and capital construction projects throughout the state.
But lawmakers and officials from central and southern Illinois plan to lobby hard against the Chicago-only proposal, arguing they need the jobs – and the money.
“The purpose was to help economically distressed communities,” Republican state Rep. Chad Hays of Catlin said of expanding gambling. “I would suggest that downstate taking the leftover crumbs from Chicago is a laughable assertion that no downstater would bite on.”
Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer and Arlington Park officials are opposed to the Chicago-only proposal as well.
“The opportunity to add downstate job creation and revenue growth far outweighs the advantages of a Chicago only license,” said Eisenhauer, who plans to travel to Chicago for the hearings, the first of which begins at 9 a.m. Wednesday.
Officials from the state’s horse racing industry sent a letter to Rita on Tuesday, opposing both measures. They said the Chicago-only casino doesn’t help the industry, and the second plan cuts down on the number of racetracks’ slots — something that was previously agreed upon in earlier legislation.
Adding another five gambling venues has won legislative approval twice since 2011, but Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has opposed both measures, saying they didn’t go far enough to safeguard against the involvement of organized crime or to limit campaign contributions from gambling operations. Last year, legislation establishing five new casinos and authorizing slot machines at racetracks and airports was discussed at length but never called it for a vote.
Much has changed in recent months, including the passage of pension reform legislation, which Quinn had said must be accomplished before he’d consider signing a gambling expansion proposal.
Illinois is also hunting for new sources of revenue as lawmakers debate whether to let a temporary income tax increase roll back as scheduled next January, taking with it about $1.6 billion. Supporters say gambling expansion would provide an estimated $400 million to $1 billion a year in revenue, depending on the package’s components.
Rita said he believes the Chicago-only option would “capture the revenue in the Chicago market without creating the cannibalization and oversaturation.”
But, he added, “Tomorrow we’ll know better which direction we’ll take.”
Quinn spokesman Dave Blanchette said the governor hadn’t yet seen the two amendments to Rita’s legislation.