Kadner: Rita says he’ll propose new gambling legislation
By Phil Kadner email@example.com March 13, 2014 1:55PM
Updated: April 15, 2014 6:19AM
When state Rep. Robert Rita said last spring that he was going to take a fresh look at casino expansion legislation for the state, I doubt anyone took him seriously.
But on Thursday, Rita, D-Blue Island, unveiled a new game plan for casino gambling, and it’s likely to send shock waves from the fifth floor of Chicago City Hall down to the governor’s mansion in Springfield.
Under Rita’s proposals, there would be a casino in Chicago, but it would be state-owned.
One of two amendments to the gambling bill Rita is sponsoring would create only one new casino — a mega-casino in Chicago with up to 10,000 gaming positions. By contrast, the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines has 1,000 slot machines and 50 table games.
Under this plan, Rita said, Chicago and the state would split the casino revenue 50-50, but the city also would have to share its take with Cook County government and some south suburbs. There would be no other new casinos issued, and horse tracks would not get slots.
“Cook County and the south suburbs would receive millions of dollars each year from their shares of the Chicago casino,” Rita told me.
A second amendment to the proposed bill calls for a smaller Chicago casino that still would be state-owned. There would be four other casinos — one each in the south suburbs, and Lake, Winnebago and Vermilion counties. The tracks, except for one near East St. Louis, would get some slot machines, but those would be about half of what were contained in previous gambling bills.
In the past, all sites of future casinos were city-specific except for the south suburbs. With Rita’s plans, the new casino locations, except for Chicago, would be defined by large geographic boundaries.
Rita said the state would have to spend any revenue from new casinos evenly between education and public works projects. All local revenue in communities landing casinos and from slots at the tracks could be spent only on capital projects or pension funding, he said.
Rita had voiced concerns to me in the past that instead of using increased revenue to invest in their communities, host towns might increase salaries or spend the money in other ways that would not directly benefit the public.
Rita became the chief sponsor of gambling expansion legislation in the House more than a year ago when state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, stepped aside, citing the appearance of a conflict of interest.
The Senate passed a gambling bill, which Gov. Pat Quinn said he was eager to sign, but Rita refused to present the bill for a vote in the House. He said he was concerned that “stakeholders,” people and groups that would be affected by the bill, had told him they never were consulted about the bill.
Cook County made a last-minute bid to obtain gambling income from a south suburban casino, but Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel apparently rejected a similar request regarding a city casino and Cook County backed off.
Rita eventually held public hearings on casino expansion in East St. Louis and Tinley Park and said he consulted with interested parties throughout the summer and fall.
“It became apparent to me that the state needed a streamlined bill, and we needed to consider new options,” he said. “The stumbling block to a Chicago casino had been (the city’s) request for its own gaming board. It did not want the Illinois Gaming Board overseeing development of a Chicago casino.
“By making the Chicago casino state-owned, it would be under the control of the Illinois Gaming Board, just like all the other casinos, so I’m hoping it would remove that stumbling block.”
Rita, however, said he had not consulted Emanuel or Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, about his amendments to the gambling bill.
“Emanuel will find out about what’s in the bill in about 10 minutes,” a laughing Rita told me Thursday afternoon.
The expansion bill cobbled together last year by Lang was, in Rita’s words, a “Christmas tree” that contained something for almost every special interest group in Illinois.
For example, there was a Depressed Communities Economic Development Fund and a Latino Community Economic Development Fund that would have received money from casino expansion. Exactly how that money would be spent wasn’t defined, but new state commissions would be created to determine what projects qualified for funding.
Rita said a $5 million fund to combat gambling addiction would be the only special fund in the new legislation.
The original gambling bill remains an option, but it could not be called for a vote unless Rita agreed or another legislator decided to sponsor the bill in the House.
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the speaker has recused himself from gambling legislation due to a conflict of interest long ago and likely would avoid getting involved in the details of Rita’s proposal.
Last year, Quinn accused Madigan of pressuring Rita to pull the gambling bill off the table, while Rita said it was Quinn who had created problems in the past in achieving expanded gambling.
But Quinn, who twice has killed gambling bills due to concerns over ethics and regulation, indicated to me that he was anxious for gambling expansion to move forward.
One thing seems certain: Rita’s new bill likely will restart the entire debate over casino expansion, how it should be done and whether it should be done at all.
And that will give rise to new speculation over why, after years of negotiations to move gambling expansion forward, Rita’s measure breaks entirely new ground.
Having recently taken a new look at the old gambling bill, I find myself agreeing with the governor’s original assessment.
It spread gambling money all over the place just to get enough votes in Springfield.
That may be good politics, but it’s really bad public policy.