Kadner: Gambling hot potato burns Robert Rita
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org June 4, 2013 10:34PM
State Rep. Robert Rita (D-Blue Island)
Updated: July 6, 2013 6:34AM
With 11 days left in the spring legislative session, state Rep. Robert Rita (D-Blue Island) was handed sponsorship of one of the hottest bills in Illinois.
“I did my best to be fair to everyone, to learn the issues, to come up with the best possible gambling bill,” Rita said Tuesday.
But he learned that when it comes to casino expansion, everyone wants a piece of the action.
“Every piece (of the legislation) that you change has an impact on all the other pieces,” Rita said. “In the end, I decided it was best to kill it, hold hearings over the summer and try to come back in the fall with another bill.”
Casino expansion had passed the Legislature in each of the last two years, only to die when Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed it. But this time the indications were that changes would be made to the bill to meet Quinn’s objections and that he was on board with expanded gambling.
Then, the longtime guru of gambling bills in the House, state Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) announced he would drop out as the chief sponsor, citing a “perceived conflict of interest.”
Rita was named the chief sponsor of the bill, which had passed out of the Senate.
“I made some changes,” he said. “But I thought we had enough votes in the House to pass the bill.”
One of those changes involved a casino for Waukegan.
“I changed the geography to all of Lake County,” Rita said. “I felt that since the location of a south suburban casino had never been site-specific, enveloping six townships, the same thing should be good for the northern suburbs.”
State Sen. Terry Link (D-Waukegan), the chief Senate sponsor of the gambling bill, apparently didn’t like that change very much.
“Getting educated was Rita’s biggest problem,” Link told the Chicago Sun-Times, describing Rita’s changes to the bill as “ridiculous” and including a “bunch of other things that were not necessarily agreed on.”
“I guess Sen. Link thought Waukegan needed to be named as a specific site for a casino,” Rita told me when asked to react to Link’s statement. “Other than that, I suppose you would have to ask Sen. Link.”
But Rita said a myriad of last-minute political maneuvers eventually led to his decision to scuttle the legislation.
“Aaron Jaffe’s statements (about carving out a separate bill creating a Chicago casino) a day and a half before the bill was going to be considered really created a problem for me,” he said.
Jaffe, the chairman of the Illinois Gaming Board, told a reporter that he felt Chicago’s proposal to own a casino should be considered separately from legislation that would create four casino licenses elsewhere in Illinois and slot machines at horse tracks.
“I know Gov. Quinn’s office said he had nothing to do with Jaffe’s comments, but there was a feeling in the House, among some of the members, that this was a signal from the governor that he didn’t want the bill to pass. That caused problems for me,” Rita said.
But he said that was only one of several political surprises.
Cook County Board President Tony Preckwinkle suddenly asked Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for a share of any Chicago casino revenue. Emanuel said “No.”
“That led south suburban legislators like (state Rep.) Will Davis (D-Hazel Crest) and state Rep. Anthony DeLuca (D-Chicago Heights) to question whether Cook County was going to try to grab 2 percent of the south suburban share of casino revenues, which is 5 percent,” Rita said.
“They made it clear that the south suburbs couldn’t afford to contribute money from a casino if Chicago wasn’t going to do its share. I agreed with them.”
Rita said he was then approached by legislators representing Winnebago County with a proposal to include the county in Rockford’s share of new casino revenue. Rockford was specifically targeted as a site for a new casino license in the gambling bill.
And legislators from East St. Louis, Rita said, told him they were concerned about putting slot machines at a nearby racetrack.
“It turns out East St. Louis gets about 40 percent of all its revenue from the Casino Queen,” Rita said, referring to that city’s casino. “There were serious concerns about the financial health of that city if the racetrack gets slot machines.”
Another stumbling block turned out to be tax rates on the biggest-earning casinos.
Illinois now taxes casino revenue at 50 percent after a casino earns between $200 million and $300 million a year, and the Senate bill proposed reducing that number to 40 percent until a casino brought in revenue of more than $800 million.
“Trying to come up with the right tax rates became a real problem,” Rita said. “You don’t want to penalize a new casino that may be doing well, but you also don’t want to punish existing casinos by taxing them too much. And at the same time there was the matter of money for education, which we hoped to produce from the new casinos.”
A gambling industry publication speculated that the tax issue alone scuttled the bill.
The ultimate problem, Rita said, “is that every time you made one change there was a domino effect on every other piece of the legislation.”
Rita said that although his time as sponsor of the bill was short, he attempted to meet with all the interested parties (Chicago, Quinn’s representatives, the gaming board and more) and thought he had worked out agreements with all.
“And then at the last minute, everything seems to fall apart,” he said. “I still don’t understand everything that happened but just felt that let’s get this done right, put it on the shelf and get back to it in the fall.”
Rita said he remains unconvinced that the governor had no influence on Jaffe’s comments.
“In the end, I just want to get this right,” he said. “That’s the most important thing.”
Handing Rita this hot potato at the last minute was probably a sign from someone that powerful people didn’t want the measure to pass.