Kadner: Rita rips roadblocks on casino bill
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org May 29, 2013 11:00PM
Illinois Rep. Robert Rita, D-Blue Island, speaks with reporters on gambling expansion legislation at the Illinois State Capitol Wednesday, May 29, 2013, in Springfield, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Updated: July 2, 2013 6:53AM
State Rep. Bobby Rita (D-Blue Island) has become the key power broker in an effort to pass a gambling expansion bill that would create five new casinos in Illinois and likely place video gambling at racetracks and airports.
Rita, an Eisenhower High School graduate, might seem like an odd choice to some, but he has demonstrated loyalty to House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) while consolidating his power base as the Democratic committeeman of Calumet Township.
After 10 years in office, Rita is vice chairman of the powerful House Executive Committee, where most controversial bills end up, and chairs two other House committees.
“I think Bobby Rita is a perfect choice to take over this bill because he’s on the executive committee, where this bill needs to get approved, and represents the south suburbs that deserve a casino,” said Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), who had been the chief House sponsor of gambling expansion bills in years past.
Lang withdrew as chief sponsor this year, citing a “perceived conflict of interest.” Although he refused to tell me specifically what that conflict is, in a column last year I revealed that Lang became “of counsel” with the Evergreen Park law firm of Odelson and Sterk. Attorney Burton Odelson represents Calumet City, which hopes to obtain a casino license if the gambling bill passes.
Lang said he does no legal work for Calumet City and emphasized that for 20 years he has advocated a casino in the south suburbs. The bills he sponsored never mentioned a specific site in the Southland but targeted a large geographic area of the south suburbs,
Rita told me he has been negotiating with Chicago officials, the governor’s staff and legislative leaders to craft a bill that will not only pass by Friday, the scheduled end of the legislative session, but win the governor’s approval.
The Legislature has passed gambling expansion during each of the last two years, only to see the bills vetoed by Gov. Pat Quinn, who cited their lack of ethical safeguards.
During a news conference in Springfield on Wednesday, Rita indicated that he thought Quinn might be attempting to undermine his current effort.
Illinois Gaming Board chairman Aaron Jaffe apparently indicated to a news organization that he thought a Chicago casino should be considered separately from the rest of the gambling bill.
Rita said he had never heard of such a suggestion and that any effort to separate Chicago from the rest of the gambling expansion “would effectively kill the bill.”
“It’s a non-starter,” Rita told me,
Rita wondered whether Jaffe had thought of the idea or if it had come from the governor, who is very close to Jaffe.
Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for Quinn, said he supports a version of the bill that has passed the Senate (though he had some reservations) and did not support a separate bill creating a Chicago-owned casino.
“His main concerns are ethics, keeping mob influence out of the casino process and generating more revenue for school construction,” Anderson said.
In addition to Jaffe’s comments about separate legislation for a Chicago casino, Rita said the state gaming board apparently wants control “over every vendor and building that goes on the site of a Chicago casino.”
“He (Jaffe) thinks the gaming board should determine whether a Starbucks or a Dunkin’ Donuts should be allowed, and I don’t think anyone can tell the city of Chicago what it can or can’t develop within the city limits,” Rita said.
Anderson indicated that the source of that dispute is over what vendors are allowed to do business on the casino property, saying that if the legislation prohibits elements of organized crime from coming in the front door, they may attempt to come through the back door.
“This would be the only casino in the country owned by a municipality,” she emphasized.
But Rita obviously was perturbed by what he viewed as a stab in the back.
Rita also is concerned by maneuvering by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to grab a share of casino revenue for Cook County.
Preckwinkle apparently approached Mayor Rahm Emanuel about sharing revenue from a Chicago casino, and after she was rebuffed, Rita said, she turned her sights on the Southland casino.
Rita appointed state Rep. Will Davis (D-Hazel Crest) to be the point man in negotiations between Chicago and Cook County officials over the revenue-sharing dispute.
“I can tell you that as far as south suburban legislators are concerned, Chicago is still part of Cook County, and if there is any notion to share casino revenues, the city (casino) must be part of the process,” Davis said.
“The south suburbs can’t afford to be a cash cow for Cook County. We have the highest unemployment rates, the highest foreclosure rates and the poorest communities in Cook County, and our suburbs need the revenue a casino would generate,” he said.
“I’m not saying we oppose sharing revenue with Cook County, but we will not be part of any deal that exempts Chicago and puts the burden on our taxpayers.”
Davis said as far as he was aware, Preckwinkle has made no effort to contact suburban lawmakers.
Rita said he favors gutting, or “shelling,” the Senate gambling bill that contains 500 pages and putting together a new bill that everyone can agree on without “10 or 15 amendments” attached to it.
“That’s why I’m negotiating with everyone to put together language we can all agree on and the governor can sign,” he said. “I believe we can get this done by (Friday).”
But Quinn has repeatedly said that pension reform remains his top priority, and he wants that done before a casino bill reaches his desk.
“I want to make sure that we have money for education in the casino bill,” Rita said, “and that means money for school construction. That is one of my top priorities. The other is a casino in the south suburbs.”
The five casino locations in the bill are Chicago, somewhere in the south suburbs, Lake Township, Rockford and Danville.