Wednesday, October 7, 2009

“United” county board a nice gesture, but it comes down to political rhetoric

After spending the summer months watching the Cook County Board engage in purely political actions against each other, it was nice to read about how the county board was united Tuesday – even though their ultimate motivation is the same, hoping to score points on some future Election Day.

The issue of concern this time was video poker – those machines that until earlier this year were illegal and were often the focus of raids by county sheriffs across the state – eager to show they were doing something to get tough on crime.

AS PART OF its grand solution to resolve the state government’s financial problems, the General Assembly and Gov. Pat Quinn approved a new law making them legal, and imposing a series of taxes on the money made off the machines.

The only problem is that the very concept of legalizing video poker machines in all those taverns and private clubs across the state so offends so many locals that they’re going through the motions of banning the devices within their jurisdictions.

For the record, state officials say the machines will be legal in enough places (ones without pseudo-moralistic hang-ups) that there will still be significant tax revenue.

But Cook County government these days is not one of those places. That is what led the county board on Tuesday to pass a measure that specifies the devices remain illegal in the county – regardless of what the state law says.

NOW AS I have written before, this move isn’t going to make a great difference – because it only allows the county sheriff to take action in those portions of the county that do not fall under anyone else’s law enforcement jurisdiction.

In short, the unincorporated areas.

Since by the very definition of urban the bulk of the 5 million-plus people who live in Cook County live in actual cities, towns or villages, it is a small percentage of the county’s residents who will have to deal with the new ban.

To seriously impact the state’s ability to make video poker legal in Cook County, people who want it to remain outlawed would have to go around to all 129 municipalities in Cook County.

THAT MEANS CHICAGO and the 128 suburban towns based within the county.

That’s a lot of work, and one might very well find out that there are many local government officials who are not going to get bent out of shape over this issue. They’d just as soon not be bothered with it, perhaps because the realities of their local political organizations means that they have no significant competition come the next Election Day – or any future Election Day, for that matter.

Saying that Cook County is reaffirming its ban on video poker sounds much more impressive, even though that ban will impact very few of its residents.

That, very likely, was the reason that proponents of video poker took seriously the Cook County action.

THE ILLLINOIS COIN Machine Operators’ Association organized a throng of t-shirt-wearing protesters, all of whom tried to cram their way into the county board room to express their opposition to the county’s proposed action.

The Chicago Tribune reports that some of those protesters were turned away due to fire codes that limit how many people can be in the board room at once. Considering how small that facility truly is, it doesn’t surprise me in the least to learn that even the slightest crowd can push the county board to the limit.

Of course, none of these people was openly saying that they want more opportunities to gamble. That would be gauche. They tried to spin the issue as one of job creation, which in today’s times of economic struggle has the potential to catch the attention of political people who have a desire to get re-elected.

Do they really want to be the subject material of a campaign advertisement a few months from now funded by the association that says county board members voted to do away with jobs at a time when so many people were out of work.

YES, THAT LINE is ridiculous. It’s absurd. Yet it is exactly the kind of rhetoric that often gets used in campaign ads. The next time you hear a hard-hitting ad against a candidate, you might want to remember this moment and consider that maybe what you’re hearing is a tad bit exaggerated (if not outright falsified).

Instead, we have the county board banding together (after months of splitting apart over the sales tax issue) in a show of moralistic outrage that the state would even think of bringing down the flaws of video poker and gambling upon us, just to make a few extra bucks.

That line is equally as absurd as the claim that the county board is doing away with jobs.

But if there is one thing I have picked up on during my time as a reporter-type person, it’s that I often can watch a government official take some sort of innocuous action and try to figure out how it can be distorted into something that sounds like it borders upon a criminal act.

BEING ABLE TO do that makes it possible for me to figure out very quickly when the negative campaign ads start (probably sometime in January, for the Feb. 2 primary elections) how many of them are just ridiculous, and ought to be disregarded.

It also means I can appreciate that this vote on Tuesday wasn’t so much about impacting video poker (like I said, it would take the actual municipalities to do that) as much as it was about creating a moment that could be used by county board members to inspire a positive campaign ad about how wonderful our sitting county board members were.

Either way, it ought to be a lesson. Political rhetoric is often like junk food – fatty, starchy, filling in a bloated (rather than nutritional) way and ultimately best consumed in moderation.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Now if more towns would follow the lead of Naperville (out in the Land of DuPage), then there might ( be some impact in terms of eliminating video poker.

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