Illinois state Rep. Bob Rita sent a letter to Illinois House leaders last week asking for support for his expanded gambling plan. Rita hopes to lock in support before the legislative session ends May 30. Rita has proposed two options; both call for a state-run casino in Chicago. One would create a mega-casino in Chicago with 10,000 positions that could generate about billion a year, according to the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. The other plan would create a casino in Chicago with 4,000 gaming positions and four additional casinos in Cook, Lake, Winnebago and Vermilion with a maximum of 1,200 positions each. This option also would allow the Arlington Park racetrack in Cook County to have up to 600 slot machines and tracks in other counties could have up to 450 slot machines. An earlier version of the bill would have allowed 1,200 slots in Cook County and 900 slots at other tracks.
Both proposals are aimed at fixing the state’s $1.8 billion budget shortfall. “Right now we got some time to do this, but time is of the essence,” Rita said.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said his priority is not a casino but fixing the city’s pension issues. Governor Pat Quinn previously vetoed two other gambling expansion bills. Last year he said that he would consider signing a gaming bill into law if the state fixed its pension situation, which the legislature appeared to do. But a recent court ruling postponed implementing those reforms, giving Quinn an excuse to not sign off on potential gambling legislation.
Said Rita, “It’s not about just passing a bill and putting it on the governor’s desk for him to veto. It’s about passing a bill that’s going to be signed. The only comment that I’ve heard publicly was that Quinn liked the direction we were going.”
The measure, Senate Bill 1739, passed the Senate 32-20 on May 1. But Rita said he’s concerned that numerous localized amendments have been filed. He stated, “That’s telling me they’re not trying to come up with a compromise that works for everyone. The message has been all along, go work out an issue” because amendments won’t solve the problems.
Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, said the association opposes slots at racetracks. “If one of these expansion bills passes, we’ll have more gaming positions than the Las Vegas strip. Each time one of these bills comes out, it’s just so big.” He said his group would support expansion if the plans were scaled back to include only parts of the state where riverboats or racetracks did not operate nearby.
Tony Somone, executive director of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association, which supports slots at racetracks, said, “We’ve got our team still trying to push this and get this thing called for this session. We’d like to think that as far as horsemen go, we are teed up and ready to go.” Somone added the racing industry is “running on fumes” and predicted that if no action is taken this spring, harness racing would be “in serious jeopardy” by next summer.
Also in Illinois, Quinn’s former chief of staff Jack Lavin now is working as a lobbyist for the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, which has a voice regarding expanded gambling in the state. Lavin left his job in Quinn’s inner circle last September and started his own lobbying business in February. Lavin also served in former Governor Rod Blagovich’s administration.
Among Quinn’s decisions during the three years that Lavin served as chief of staff were whether to expand gambling and legalize medical marijuana. Lavin also represents a company formed to compete for a license to grow medical marijuana.
Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said, “Mr. Lavin consulted with both the Office of the Governor’s General Counsel and Ethics Officer prior to his departure from the State. When Governor Quinn took office, he enacted a strong new ethics code and we expect everyone to comply with it,” Anderson added.
Under the state’s revolving door law, certain state employees or former state workers cannot accept employment or compensation from a non-state employer if the worker, in the past year, made regulatory or licensing decisions or awarded contracts affecting the new employer.
State Senator Darin LaHood of Dunlap, a proponent of tougher revolving door laws, said of Lavin’s new career, “I think that’s probably something to look at.”
Another area of concern in Illinois is the expansion of internet cafes, such as Dotty’s in Bloomington. Fred Jansen, managing member of SOILL Restaurant Systems, which would own the Dotty’s in Bloomington, told the city’s liquor commission said the location would feature “an old-fashioned grandma kitchen kind of decor” and serve salads, sandwiches and breakfast food, adding that video gaming “certainly is part of the entertainment package that we provide our customers, both the food, beverage and the video gaming.” However, Jansen emphasized, “We’re a restaurant. We serve three meals a day. We meet their classification.”
The liquor commission voted 2-1 to recommend a liquor license for Dotty’s, which also operates in Oregon, Montana and Nevada. The city council will vote on the issue on June 9. Liquor Commissioner Geoffrey Tompkins cast the dissenting vote. He said, “I don’t know many grandmothers with slot machines in their kitchen. ” He stated Dotty’s “was not really wanting to open a restaurant or a bar but rather a gambling facility and use a liquor license to achieve that. I think that violates the spirit of the law and the intent of the law.”
Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner said he will ask the city council to send the request back for further investigation. “It was presented as a great family kitchen restaurant. There didn’t seem to be real big red flags at first but the more we dig the more concerns there are.” He added, “I don’t want to use my authority as a liquor commissioner to increase gambling in Bloomington. If private market creates that, fine, but I don’t have to help that along by giving liquor licenses, which are a privilege not a right, especially if that turns out to be a front. I’m not sure that’s the case with this, but I’m more concerned now.”
SOILL has received city liquor licenses and applied for state video gambling licenses at four locations in Springfield. Earlier this month the city council there voted 8-2 requiring new liquor licenses to have at least 60 percent of annual revenue from food and beverage sales in order to offer video gambling, effective May 31. Two aldermen sponsored the ordinance to help other bars and restaurants compete with storefront gambling operations that sell minimal food and drink.
City officials in Dixon and Champaign also rejected proposals that would have allowed gas stations to serve alcohol on the premises in order meet that state requirement for offering gambling.