Illinois Lawmakers Move Gambling Bill

Illinois lawmakers will address state Senator Terry Link's SB 1382 this summer, allowing a Chicago-owned casino, four others in the Chicago area and smaller "satellite" casinos. Meanwhile SB 777, awaiting the signature of Governor Bruce Rauner (l.), would let Chicago keep city-owned casino revenue for its first seven years for future pension payments.

Roman Catholic bishops at the Catholic Conference of Illinois recently told legislators “it is not healthy to rely upon gambling as an alternative” to a fair tax system. The bishops, from the state’s six Catholic dioceses in Belleville, Chicago, Joliet, Peoria, Rockford and Springfield, said gambling is not necessarily immoral but that the state is in danger of surrendering to its “passion for gambling.” They called for transparent financial records from gambling operations doing business with Illinois and an end to gambling advertising that targets poor people.

The bishops were talking about SB 1382, which would establish a Chicago-owned casino and four others in Chicago’s south suburbs, Rockford, Vermilion County and Lake County. Bill sponsor state Senator Terry Link said the casinos could generate annual revenue of $500 million which could help pay down the $6 billion deficit in the state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Governor Bruce Rauner has said he’s open to adding new casinos but negotiations between the governor and Democratic leaders have broken down.

Since the session ended without a vote, Link said lawmakers likely will take up the legislation this summer. “This is a bill that’s in motion. It’s obviously in play. With all the other things going on, this is something that will be looked at over the summer and hopefully brought up some day when we are back in Springfield,” he said.

Link’s measure also calls for smaller “satellite” casinos, with 400-600 slot machines, that could be located at Walker’s Bluff Winery in Carterville in far southern Illinois, and in Decatur. Walker’s Bluff entertainment development features a restaurant, winery, gift store and music venue. The company hired former state Rep. Dan Reitz in April to be its lobbyist this session. State Rep. John Bradley said he supported the Walker’s Bluff location despite being a strong opponent of gambling. But state Rep. Terri Bryant said although she supports Walker’s Bluff, she’s said she would not support a casino there.

In Decatur, Mayor Mike McElroy said the city is not actively pursuing a casino and was surprised that the city was being considered as a casino site. “This call just comes to me out of the blue. We don’t say `no’ to anything. But I don’t think there is a snowball’s chance in hell,” he said.

However, if the legislation passes allowing slots at the state’s five horseracing venues, employee-owned CQ Holdings Inc., owner of the Casino Queen riverboat in East St. Louis, Illinois announced it would buy the struggling, 90-year-old Fairmount Park racetrack in Collinsville. Fairmount Park would operate as a subsidiary of the parent company and retain its existing management.

Casino Queen officials opposed slots at the racetrack out of concern over revenue losses. And East St. Louis officials also opposed a racino since it relies on casino revenue for about 40 percent of its budget. “We needed to find a solution that bolstered the racetrack for the future without compromising the operations of the Casino Queen, and this acquisition affords us the opportunity to do just that,” said Casino Queen President and General Manager Jeff Watson.

A gambling-related bill that passed the Senate 38-20 on the final day of the legislative session is SB 777. It lets Chicago keep all the revenue from a city-owned casino for the first seven years of operation to help cover future city pension payments. Chicago faces about $20 billion in unfunded liabilities across its four pension funds. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has been promoting a city-owned casino, said, “I am pleased that this afternoon the Illinois Senate recognized that SB 777 provides a reasonable and responsible funding plan that will secure the pensions of our first responders while reducing the burden on our taxpayers.”

A spokeswoman for Rauner declined to comment on whether he will sign the bill. Rauner commented, “We need to stop kicking the can down the road on our pensions,” adding he was disappointed that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel supported the measure.

State Rep. Jeanne Ives said, “This is SB 777 because you’re hoping for a string of lucky sevens in a casino that’s a fantasy idea right now to make this work. It couldn’t have been perfect for you to pick this bill number for this bill.”

Helen Samuelson, an analyst at Standard & Poor’s, noted, “We are skeptical at this time that revenues from a casino alone are the answer to the city’s problem. However, these revenues may be one component of a larger plan that has yet to be unveiled by the city.”