Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Has ‘gaming’ finally topped ‘gambling’ toward a casino for Chicago?

There are still some steps to follow, which means that things could still go awry – always a safe assumption when dealing with the Springfield set.

But the people who for the past two decades have been eager to have a gambling casino within the city limits (preferably somewhere near the downtown area) were celebrating on Monday for reasons more than it being Memorial Day.

FOR ONE OF the issues that the Illinois House of Representatives chose to address on this holiday was a bill that would allow for a significant expansion of gambling within Illinois.

No longer would casinos be restricted to 10 locations located on rivers outside of Cook County. Illinois is officially giving up on the concept that casinos are quaint cruises on riverboats in the less-urban parts of the state , with a touch of gambling taking place on board.

The bill approved Monday by the Illinois House would allow for a city-based casino – which is the absolute last thing the original proponents of casinos in Illinois would ever have wanted.

That is the reason why the idea of a Chicago casino has been a perennial issue for 20-plus years. It comes up every year, creates a lot of rhetoric, and invariably the General Assembly goes home without taking final action.

THIS YEAR, THE Illinois House did its part. What remains to be seen is if the Illinois Senate will follow through with a similar vote on Tuesday – the final scheduled date for legislative activity in this year’s session.

And if they do, will Gov. Pat Quinn go along with the measure and sign it into law?

Would Quinn be cantankerous enough to be a lone-wolf rejector of an idea that city officials have said they want? Officials as high-ranking as new Mayor Rahm Emanuel have said they want a city-based casino – figuring that it would generate so much income that it could make the big dent in fixing municipal finances.

Then again, selling off the city’s parking meters was supposed to resolve municipal finances – except that city officials managed to blow that wad of cash all too quickly.

IF IT READS like I’m skeptical about the benefits of a Chicago casino, you’d be correct.

A part of me always has thought that casinos are “economic development” for communities that, for whatever reason, are incapable of attracting any other kind of business. Proponents of legal gambling will claim I’m being elitist, but I’d really like to think Chicago can do better than have to balance its budgets by relying on the idea of shaking down people who have borderline addictions to gambling.

But people like Lou Lang, the state representative from Skokie who has been a long-time fan of having more casinos, are swayed by the dollar figures being tossed about -$1.5 billion in licensing fees and maybe about $500 million per year as the state share of the casino gross.

That’s not all from a Chicago casino. For the Illinois House bill buys off the interests of people in the rest of the state who might not want Chicago to have a casino by creating a few more casinos.

ONE EACH IN both the south and north suburbs (the former of which my step-mother likely would enjoy because it would be closer to her home than the gambling boats she currently goes to in Joliet), along with casinos in Rockford and Danville – both of which likely would try to market themselves as appealing to Wisconsin and Indiana residents respectively because of their proximity to their respective state lines.

All of those people who complain that casinos in places like East Chicago and Hammond in Indiana and Davenport in Iowa are taking dollars away from Illinois will now try to arouse the ire of other states by taking dollars away from other Midwestern states.

Actually, this factor could be what kills off this particular bill. For while Quinn has said he is sympathetic to letting Chicago city officials have a casino, he doesn’t like the idea of adding so many more casinos – even though without those additional casinos the non-Chicago state legislators would “gang up” on the idea of a city casino and vote it down.

He has told reporter-types he won’t let Illinois become a, “Las Vegas of the Midwest.” Which is a stretch, although I’m sure the biggest proponents of expanded legal gambling would have no problem with that image coming true.

LANG: Will he finally get his dream?
THERE ARE EVEN measures to allow slot machines to be set up at the airport and at racetracks (including the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield) because it seems that gambling on horseracing by itself can’t survive economically. It’s all in the name of political compromise.

So what’s going to become of this issue? At least we’ll know by the end of tonight (or the early hours of Wednesday if the Legislature can’t wrap up their business by midnight). Will the people who prefer the word “gaming” (because they think “gambling” sounds too ominous) finally get their way on this issue?

Or will the Legislature this fall be talking about casino expansion, along with pension reform and all the other issues they manage to push off for future consideration?


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