Kadner: Rita calls hearing on gambling bill
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org October 16, 2013 8:30PM
State Rep. Robert Rita (D-Blue Island)
Updated: November 18, 2013 7:43AM
An Illinois House committee will hold a wide-ranging hearing on gambling expansion in the state next Wednesday, according to state Rep. Robert Rita (D-Blue Island).
Among the issues he wants the House Executive Committee to explore, Rita said, are written guidelines for revenue sharing by host municipalities, whether the Illinois Gaming Board should be able to vet shop owners near a Chicago-owned casino and why the Southland is the only region of the state that never has had a specific town designated for a casino.
“I want to make sure this thing is done in the right way,” said Rita, who emerged as the chief sponsor of the gambling expansion bill in the House last spring.
Rita never called the much-anticipated gambling bill (which was approved by the Senate) for a vote, resulting in speculation about political gamesmanship between House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and Gov. Pat Quinn. After opposing gambling expansion for years, Quinn suddenly seemed anxious to see the measure passed in May.
Rita said afterward that there had been a lack of transparency in developing a gambling expansion bill for years, and he felt there should be hearings that allowed the public to have in input.
One key issue for him was revenue sharing among municipalities, school districts and counties, Rita said.
“Cook County wanted a share of the revenue proceeds from a south suburban casino,” he said, “but Chicago had said it wasn’t going to share (income from a city casino) with Cook County. South suburban communities said they felt they shouldn’t have to share revenue with Cook County if Chicago wasn’t going to be part of a similar deal.”
A similar debate took place in Winnebago County, where the county demanded a share of the proceeds from a proposed Rockford casino and city leaders objected.
“It also bothered me that the legislation also referred to a south suburban casino being in a geographic region rather than designating a specific site, as we had with Danville, Rockford, Chicago and each of the other casinos sites in the bill,” Rita said. “I thought to even the playing field, instead of designating a casino for Waukegan we would change the language to include all of Lake County. But that caused all sorts of problems.”
The problems arose from state Sen. Terry Link (D-Waukegan), the sponsor of Senate Bill 1739, who felt Rita was attempting to undermine his legislation without consulting him.
“I just felt if it was fair to the south suburbs not to have a designative site for a casino, it should be the same for Lake County,” Rita said.
He fears that designating a certain area of South Cook County that included about 20 suburbs could result in infighting among towns and not the best casino deal for the area.
“I’m also concerned about how revenue from a casino would be distributed,” Rita said. “Should the host community get all the money? Should it be distributed to other municipalities? I don’t like the idea of sharing it with school districts because it reminds me of the lottery, which has left a bad taste in the mouths of Illinois residents.”
Rita has contemplated creating a capital development fund with casino revenue, which would be used to repair roads and bridges, construct buildings or even provide matching funds for government grants.
“In the south suburbs, we have a lot of poorer communities that are unable to come up with the money for matching grants from the state or federal governments,” he said. “... So maybe we should create a fund that can be used to get those matching funds for major projects. It’s just an idea.”
Another issue is that Chicago wants to own its casino, which has raised questions that nobody in the country has answered, Rita said.
“There’s no model for doing this because no other city has done it,” he said. “I want to hear from people who have some idea of how it should be done.”
The Illinois Gaming Board, according to Rita, has indicated that it would have regulatory control — not only over the Chicago casino operation but over shops that might operate within the casino and perhaps even those outside the footprint.
“Where does the casino end, and where does the city of Chicago’s municipal authority exceed the authority of the gaming board to regulate business within the city limits?” Rita asked.
“For example, if the casino were to be built over a train station, would the gambling board have regulatory authority over the train station? What if it’s in a (special taxing) district? Does the gaming board claim it has some authority over that?
“How big is the casino footprint that the gaming board can regulate? And that’s a really tough question to answer since we don’t know where the Chicago casino will be located or how it will be developed.”
Rita, vice chairman of the executive committee, indicated that every aspect of the casino legislation would be open for comment during the hearings, a prospect that may dismay longtime architects of gambling bills.
Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), the House sponsor of the gambling bill before Rita took over, had long contended that the complex legislation was constructed behind the scenes in such a way that changing any portion of it would undermine legislative support for the entire bill.
I asked Rita how the committee could possibly hear everyone’s concerns about the bill in one day and if he was still hoping to call the bill in the Legislature’s upcoming veto session.
“Let’s see what happens Oct. 23,” he said. “If more hearings are needed, we will hold more hearings. I’m not going to rush this thing. Let’s see how close we are at the end of the hearing.
“I want to get this right. Not just right for the casino industry but right for the state, right ethically and right for the regulators who are going to have to enforce it.
“I want to pass a great bill for the people of this state, not just a gambling bill.”