Time Runs Out In Illinois

Illinois State Rep. Bob Rita (l.) pulled his two proposed expanded gambling bills from the House agenda, saying he lacked the support to pass them. Rita said either amendment would have helped fill the $1.8 billion state budget gap. Meanwhile, a controversy is rising over video poker machines in Chicago.

Prior to the end of the Illinois legislative session on May 31, state Rep. Bob Rita sent a letter to House Speaker Michael Madigan and Republican leader Jim Durkin expressing frustration at the lack of response to his proposed expanded gambling legislation. Rita said his amendments allowing a state-run Chicago casino would help fill a .8 billion gap in the state budget. Rita wrote, “The reception to these amendments has been underwhelming.”

The temporary tax hike runs out in January and it’s not clear if Democrats can pass an extension. “Clearly, we’re going to need revenue,” Rita noted.

The next day, Rita pulled the bills without voting, saying he lacked the support to pass them. He said he would spend the summer trying to shore up support from Governor Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and try to solve the revenue=sharing dilemma that was a contentious part of the bill.

“I am disappointed we could not move this issue forward this spring, but I am determined to prepare a bill for consideration in the fall veto session,” he said in a statement. “We will be considering important revenue and budget issues during that session. I believe gambling expansion should and will be a major factor as we make these critical decisions going into 2015.”

Rita’s proposed bill SB1849 offered two options. The first would have created five new casinos, including one in Chicago, and allow slots at horseracing tracks. The second would have allowed a Vegas-style, 10,000-position “mega casino” in Chicago that could generate nearly $1 billion a year in revenue for the state and city.

Quinn had not said if he would approve the measure with either amendment. In 2012 he vetoed an expansion bill because he said it lacked ethical standards and would attract “unsavory influences.” And Emanuel has said he wants to solve the city’s $100 million pension crisis before considering gambling expansion.

Meanwhile, Illinois Gaming Board spokesman Gene O’Shea discussed video gaming parlor advertising rules, passed by the board earlier this year. The rules regulate advertising for the 16,000-plus video gambling terminals across the state. “The industry asked us for some guidelines. They just wanted some clarification of the rules,” O’Shea said.

The gaming board does not plan to review or approve advertising, O’Shea said. He added he was not aware of complaints of misleading or false promotions. The guidelines state that terminal operators must “use their best judgment,” but that disciplinary action could result from misleading or false claims. Complaints also could be referred to the Illinois attorney general’s office under consumer-protection law.

The key guidelines include: video gambling operators cannot claim better odds of winning at one establishment over another; they cannot use the Illinois Gaming Board name or logo without consent; and they cannot suggest the board endorses a particular company or location. Operators also may not use the word “casino” in promotions.

Communities also are putting limits on video gaming expansion, such as in Springfield where the city council voted 8-2 to require new liquor licenses have at least 60 percent of annual revenue from food and beverage sales in order to offer video gambling. Aldermen Cory Jobe and Frank Edwards sponsored the ordinance as a way to protect traditional bars and restaurants from the spread of storefront gambling parlors that sell minimal food and drink.

Last December a Chicago Tribune report showed how so-called sweepstakes machines were popping up in Chicago bars, despite the city’s ban on video poker. The machines accept cash, then return the customer a coupon to buy items at a website and then allow the customer to play slot-machine-like games. The machines are like electronic versions of McDonald’s Monopoly game and therefore legal, owner said.

But Art Bilek, an executive of the nonprofit Chicago Crime Commission, said the games push the limits on the city’s ban on video poker.  Bilek said the number of Chicago locations for the games has grown to more than 75, spreading into suburbs that also ban video poker. “Time is of the essence here. Once there are enough of these machines, they are all but impossible to eradicate,” Bilek said.

Zack Stamp, a lobbyist for the Illinois Coin Machine Operators Association, which includes video poker companies, said, “It is competition that is untaxed, unregulated and we are going to see more of it.”