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Preckwinkle revamps video gaming tax

Updated: December 1, 2012 4:40PM



Rivers Casino in Des Plaines would feel a bigger financial bite under the latest version a countywide gambling tax Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is pushing.

On Tuesday, she unveiled a revised proposal that would mean Rivers Casino — the only casino in the county — would pay $1,000 for each slot machine in the house while mom and pop bars and taverns across the suburbs would pay $200 for video gaming machines in their establishments.

Originally, she had proposed an across-the-board $800 tax on each machine annually but acknowledged she got some pushback from the county commissioners she needs to get the measure passed. They were worried the tax would be burdensome on the corner tavern.

“Let me just say in my talks with commissioners they were universally concerned about the impact on the neighborhood bars and taverns in the communities that they represent. That’s very different from the casinos,” Preckwinkle told reporters in a press conference she called Tuesday to announce the changes.

She has said research shows the $800 per machine represents one day’s revenue at the casino, which has more than 1,000 slot machines. And she believes that given the social toll gambling takes on society, it’s a “small price to pay.”

“We’ve looked at this in consideration of the daily revenues of machines and the impact that they have on public safety in Cook County. We planned to tax them a little more than one day’s revenue. It’s a small price to pay to help with the impact on crime, health and addiction,” she said.

Two-thirds of the county’s budget pays for the public health and hospital system as well as the local criminal justice system.

The proposal is part of her nearly $3 billion budget plan and Preckwinkle have been busy lining up the minimum nine votes on the county board she needs to pass a series of fee and tax initiatives totaling $43 million — some proving to be controversial enough that she and her staff have been busy negotiating.

And time is running out as she works toward a Friday deadline, when the county board will hold a special meeting to vote on the revenue package.

On Monday, she tweaked her proposed 1.25 percent “use tax” on items Cook County businesses and residents purchase beyond county borders. Originally the tax would have applied to items $2,500 and over, but now it’s $3,500. The tax on merchandise — specifically non-titled property — original was supposed to bring in $15 million next year.

Preckwinkle’s staff has been in discussions with several commissioners about her $25-a-gun and nickel-a-bullet tax proposal.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a North Side and suburban Democrat, said the Preckwinkle administration has been trying to figure out how to apply the nickel-a-bullet tax. And Commissioner Edwin Reyes said the administration is leaning toward dropping the ammunition tax but keeping the gun tax in place.

But Reyes, a Northwest Side Democrat, said bluntly that Preckwinkle hasn’t locked in the votes she needs to pass the measure.

“They’re (the Preckwinkle administration) trying to figure out what to do, they don’t have the support for it,” he said. A member of the Illinois State Patrol, Reyes doesn’t like the measure because he’s concerned law enforcement would have to pay the tax up front for work-related guns and ammunition and then await a rebate in the mail.

Preckwinkle was tight-lipped about whether she has the support for the plan.

But she acknowledged she’s looking closely at alternative to her violence tax that Commissioner John Fritchey announced over the weekend.

It’s a $1 million-plus anti-gun violence package that calls for doling out county money to youth programs, community organizations working to curb crime, as well as for a public campaign to educate people about laws against purchasing guns with the intent of reselling them to criminals. Money for the program would be found by delaying hiring for 28 vacant administrative positions in the Cook County Health and Hospitals System.

While it calls for spending money, Fritchey said his plan would not only save lives, but also save the cash-strapped county government money, particularly the county’s public hospitals and court system which shoulder the burdens of gun violence.

During the Tuesday gambling press conference Preckwinkle dodged a question about whether a guns and ammunition tax would be in place after all is said and done.

“We will work on this with Commissioner Fritchey. It’s my expectation that we’ll come to some conclusion,” she said.

The guns-and-ammunition tax as well as the revised gambling tax would each bring in roughly $1 million each in new revenues next year.

Preckwinkle is working to assemble the votes for a $1-a-pack cigarette tax hike that could bring in $25.6 million next year for the county’s health and hospital system.

Preckwinkle said she prides herself on having an open door on policy and budget issues — including the new revision to the gambling tax that took some of the onus off smaller suburban taverns that opted to set up video gaming machines. The city of Chicago has a ban in place that doesn’t allow them.

The president and several commissioners came up with a revised two-tired taxing plan — “a dollar amount that was comfortable for the mom and pops and it was comfortable, I guess, for the gaming people as well,” said Commissioner Deborah Sims, who attended the news conference with Preckwinkle.

The machine owners would be responsible or paying the tax.

But at least two gaming officials gave the proposal a thumbs down.

Dennis Culloton, a spokesman for Rivers Casino, said later Tuesday: “We are opposed to the tax and the to the two-tiered approach which seems destined to drive gaming to the neighborhoods,” he said.

While that could hurt business, observers question, too, whether it’s wise to expand gaming in the neighborhoods where it’s hard for authorities to keep an eye on them.

Chicago has a ban in place on video gaming and elected leaders have pushed to limit video gaming in the suburbs.

Zack Stamp, a lobbyist for the Illinois Coin Machine Operators Association, has questioned whether the measure is legal and said again Tuesday his organization is still parsing the proposal and will weigh in on the plan down the line.



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