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Kadner: Rita serious about state-owned casino

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Updated: May 2, 2014 6:19AM



A surprising silence has greeted a plan for a state-owned casino in Chicago.

It has been three weeks since state Rep. Robert Rita, D-Blue Island, proposed legislation creating a state-owned mega casino in Chicago, and Gov. Pat Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have yet to comment on it.

“I take that as a good sign,” Rita said during an interview at his Blue Island legislative office Monday. “I think they’re actually taking the time to study the options I’ve proposed.”

Rita, the chief sponsor of gambling expansion legislation in the House, has added two amendments to an existing gambling bill.

The first amendment would create only one new casino in Illinois, which would be in Chicago and have up to 10,000 gambling positions.

The city would pick the casino site, Rita said, but the state would own it. Gambling revenue would be split 50-50 between the city and state. Chicago would have to use its share of the money to finance public education, capital development projects and pension funds. The state would have to use its share on education and capital development.

Also, the city would have to share its profits with more than 40 Southland towns because the plan does not call for a casino in the south suburbs. Under Rita’s plan, the suburbs would get 1.5 percent of the casino revenue or a minimum of $6 million per year.

The second amendment, which Rita calls an alternative plan, would create a smaller state-owned casino (4,000 to 6,000 gambling positions) in Chicago and four new casinos in other areas of the state, including the south suburbs.

Horse tracks also would get video gambling under Rita’s Plan B, but only half as many as they would have under previous legislation.

“I think some people looked at my amendments as a joke when I first announced them,” Rita said. “But I am serious. These amendments came out of hearings I held in East St. Louis and Tinley Park (a third hearing is scheduled for Chicago on April 16).

“I carefully studied the previous bill and the comments the governor made about them and decided what we really needed was a scaled-down plan. The governor vetoed the gambling bill twice before and, I think it was the first time, he said he couldn’t approve casino expansion without strong ethical standards, comprehensive oversight and dedicated resources for education.

“I tried to address all three of those concerns. My bill prohibits campaign contributions from anyone who owns more than 1 percent of a casino. It places the Chicago casino under the authority of the Illinois Gaming Board instead of a city gaming board.

“And it provides money for education. Every dollar would be assigned per student, except for Chicago’s share, which it could use to fund education in the city. The state’s share of the money does not fund education in Chicago since the city would have its own revenue stream from the casino.

“The governor has also said in the past that the casino bill allowed for ‘an excessive expansion that is simply too much.’ Well, both my amendments scale back the amount of gambling. One amendment creates only one new casino in the state, and that should address not only the governor’s concerns about expansion but the concerns of existing casinos, like those in Joliet, that fear cannibalization of existing casinos if there’s expansion.

“My second amendment addresses the needs of horse track owners. It gives them the potential to earn more money but isn’t as large as the previous versions of the bill.”

Previous sponsors of a gambling bill in the Legislature — state Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan, and state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie — had said the bill was designed as a Christmas tree, with something for everyone, in order to assure there would be enough votes to pass it.

I asked Rita why he thought his bill would pass without things such as special funds for minority communities, depressed communities and the state fairgrounds (there were about 30 such special funds in the previous casino bill).

“I would simply say to my colleagues, ‘do you want more money for capital development, for education and new jobs or not?’” Rita said. “I think those are pretty good things. If you don’t like them, vote ‘no’ on the bill and we’ll move on.

“But this bill creates money to build bridges, roads, new school buildings and pay teachers, and while there’s not a specific fund designated to do some of the things they wanted done in the old bill, it could create money for many of those as well.

“I just want people to appreciate that this wasn’t done as a joke,” Rita said. “It’s a serious plan created after talking to a lot of people and studying the problems with the previous bills. I tried to take a step back and look at what we were trying to do, what the state really needed, and this offers people two options to consider that both have merit.

“As for downstate legislators, I would tell them if you vote for a casino in Chicago, you have none of the headaches of dealing with the casino in your community and you get a share of the revenues. What’s not to like?”

Remarkably, Rita said no one from the city of Chicago or the governor’s office has reached out to him to indicate how Quinn or Emanuel feel about his proposals.

I have left numerous messages with the press offices of both men, seeking a comment, and neither has gotten back to me.

In truth, I expected a quick reaction from both men, especially Quinn, rejecting the idea of a state-owned casino.

Like Rita, I think the governor’s lack of a response indicates that he’s considering the possibility.

In his legislation, Rita restricts money raised from new casinos outside of Chicago to capital projects and local pension plans.

“I don’t want to see the revenue squandered,” he said. “I think people should be able to see where the money is being spent.

“I said when I started this process I want to do it the right way. That’s my only goal here. To make sure it’s done the right way and not behind closed doors.”



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