Kadner: Casino bill hearing in Tinley Park
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org February 10, 2014 10:24PM
FILE - This May 14, 2003 file photo shows visitors to the Empress Casino playing slot machines in Joliet, Ill. A demand to allow Illinois casinos to stay open around-the-clock is causing worries for anti-gambling groups, who say the precious few hours that casinos close can mean all the difference for addicts. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)
Updated: February 11, 2014 4:01PM
Fulfilling a pledge he made last year, state Rep. Robert Rita will host a public hearing Monday in Tinley Park on gambling expansion in Illinois.
Rita, D-Blue Island, became the chief sponsor of the gambling bill in the House last year after state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, withdrew his sponsorship, citing a perceived conflict of interest.
A bill to establish five new casinos, including one in the Southland, and slot machines at horse tracks passed the Senate last year but never came up for a vote in the House after Rita said he wanted more input from impacted parties before holding a vote.
Rita told me at the time that he wanted to hold hearings across the state because he felt too many of the negotiations in the past had been done behind closed doors. The first such hearing occurred last month in East St. Louis before what newspapers described as a “packed house” of more than 300 people.
“This upcoming hearing will focus on the south suburbs,” Rita said. “We have invited all of the municipalities that have expressed an interest in hosting a casino to testify. We have invited the Joliet casinos to testify.
“We have also invited other interested mayors from the south suburbs, people from the Will County (Farm Bureau), business leaders from the local chambers of commerce, Balmoral Park and even anti-gambling people.”
The hearing will take place at 6 p.m. at the Tinley Park Convention Center, 183rd Street and Harlem Avenue.
Two specific areas Rita hopes to concentrate on are site selection for a Southland casino and casino revenue sharing.
Gov. Pat Quinn has twice vetoed gambling expansion, largely out of ethical and governance concerns, but told me last year he was anxious to sign such legislation and expressed disappointment that Rita failed to bring a bill onto the House floor.
“One area that I’m hoping to get some discussion on is whether the south suburbs would be better off with one casino site (in the bill) or (still mentioning) a geographic area representing six townships,” Rita told me Monday.
While past gambling bills have include casinos for specific cities such as Chicago, Rockford, and Danville, the proposal for a Southland casino has always included a broad geographic description that included areas within six townships.
“I want to find out if that’s really the best thing for the south suburbs, or if a bill should contain a specific site,” Rita said. “I want to hear what people have to say and listen to their reasoning. I want to know why we’re different.”
As for revenue sharing, the governor in the past has said that he would not sign a gambling bill that did not include money for education.
Rita noted that the Senate version of the bill passed last year did not contain specific recommendations for revenue sharing by the host community with nearby municipalities or school districts.
He said he liked the idea of creating a capital development fund for local towns from casino income because many of the suburbs in his House district are so poor they lack the money for state matching grants for road and bridge projects.
Another area of contention that came up for the first time last year was revenue sharing with Cook County.
County officials indicated they wanted some of the revenue from a south suburban casino, but Rita said Chicago officials rejected a similar overture to get money for Cook County from a Chicago casino.
“I want to hear what south suburban officials have to say about that idea,” Rita said.
However, in past discussions with me on the topic, Rita said he didn’t like the idea of a south suburban casino sharing revenue with Cook County if Chicago were exempt from doing so.
“My goal here is to listen to what people have to say and give them a chance to have some input into the legislative process,” he said.
“If people have good ideas that ought to be included in the bill, I’m willing to do that.”
Rita said he’s willing to listen to the concerns of the casino operators in Joliet, whose casinos would be the closest to a south suburban casino.
In East St. Louis, he said, city officials expressed concerns that allowing slots at the nearby Fairmount Park horse track would impact revenue generated by the Casino Queen, which has generated money for the city’s police and fire departments. But the track operator warned that the track might be forced out of business without getting slot machines.
“In the end, they agreed to come together and talk about what would be best for everyone,” Rita said. “I considered that a good outcome because at least now the two sides are talking.”
Based on my understanding of the south suburban situation, there unlikely is to be any agreement on a specific casino location. Rita said he has invited the mayors of Country Club Hills, Calumet City, Homewood, East Hazel Crest and Lynwood to appear because each of those towns has indicated an interest in having a casino (Homewood and East Hazel Crest are combining on a plan).
Rita said he also would welcome representatives of Chicago Heights and Ford Heights, where officials have previously expressed interest in a casino, although their intentions at this time seem vague.
“I would like, in general terms, to hear each of these communities explain what their plans would entail,” he said. “I’m not looking for specifics that would reveal all of the details but some description about what their plans are in the future.”
Rita said he would like to hold other hearings, particularly in Chicago, but had not yet solidified those plans.
“My main goal is to get a bill out in the spring session of the Legislature, something that can pass, by May 31,” he said. “And for the first time, I want people to feel that anyone who had an interest in the bill got a fair hearing. The goal is to pass the best bill possible for the people of the state.”