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Kadner: Rita says casino cash should pay for building projects

Updated: July 15, 2013 7:42PM



Any legislation expanding gambling in Illinois likely will include a mandate that revenue-sharing funds from a south suburban casino be earmarked for development projects only, according to the bill’s chief sponsor in the House.

“I don’t want to see communities using that money to hire new administrators or using it for operating expenses,” state Rep. Robert Rita (D-Blue Island) said. “I would like to see the money invested in buildings, bridges, street improvements or repairing water mains, improvements in things people can see. I want them to see how the money is being used.”

During an interview this week in his Blue Island office, Rita rejected as “ridiculous” a contention by Gov. Pat Quinn that the gambling bill, which would’ve created five casinos, was not called for a vote this spring because a House staff member who was writing the bill “got lost.” But Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson called me to say that despite what Rita says, the House staffer “did get lost.”

Rita said there were several staff members working on the bill, that his amendment to a Senate gambling bill was eventually filed, but that he decided not to call the measure for a vote because “I still had a lot of questions I wanted answered.”

Rita was given sponsorship of the gambling bill 11 days before the end of the spring session after its longtime sponsor, state Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), withdrew due to what he called a “perceived conflict of interest.” Rita said Lang telephoned as Rita was driving down to Springfield and told him he was handing the sponsorship over to him.

At first, Rita said he thought it would be simple to sponsor the bill, which had passed the Legislature the previous two years. But he was overwhelmed with requests from interested parties, claiming they had been cut out of the decision-making process in the past by Lang and state Sen. Terry Link (D-Waukegan), the Senate sponsor.

“Several of them had what sounded like very good arguments why they should be heard or receive a share of the revenue,” Rita said.

He said some made claims that, upon investigation, turned out to be exaggerated or would have resulted in complications in passing the bill.

Rita said he didn’t talk about his concerns to either Lang or House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) because both had removed themselves due to conflicts of interest. Rita insisted that it was entirely his decision to pull the bill, and Madigan did not attempt to influence him in any way.

However, Rita said Quinn telephoned several times in the final days of the session, urging him to call the measure for a vote.

That seems strange because Quinn opposed gambling expansion in each of the past two years — once by simply letting it be known he didn’t like the bill and the second time by actually vetoing the measure.

In addition, the governor told me (and Rita) that he would not have signed a gambling expansion bill unless the General Assembly passed pension reform, which it did not.

Rita said he plans to hold public hearings across the state during the summer and submit a new gambling bill in the fall veto session.

“I want to give everyone a chance to have their say, even the anti-gambling folks,” he said. “That just seems like the right thing to do. It does seem that some people feel they have been left out of the process, for whatever reason, and there may be some people out there with good ideas.”

Under state law, host municipalities receive 5 percent of a casino’s gambling revenue and also benefit from an admission tax. In recent years, to gather support for their bids, proposed host towns have offered to share a portion of their revenue with other communities or school districts.

Quinn has repeatedly said he wants any casino legislation to include funding for public education. Rita didn’t sound enthusiastic about that idea, noting that it could remind taxpayers of the state lottery, which was marketed as a way to finance education, an idea that’s now generally viewed as a sham.

Rita noted that many of the Southland communities he represents have major infrastructure problems but do not have enough money to get matching funds from state grant programs.

He indicated that while he was primarily thinking about the south suburban casino in terms of the capital funding mandate, he would consider expanding the idea to other casinos if people felt it had merit.

Another problem with the gambling bill, Rita said, was Cook County’s interest in obtaining a share of the south suburban casino revenue, even though Chicago had rejected a similar revenue-sharing proposal for its casino.

“South suburban legislators are willing to share our casino revenues with Cook County, but only if a Chicago casino is part of the deal,” Rita said, explaining that he had conferred with other Southland lawmakers.

A similar dispute has apparently arisen in Winnebago County, which wants a cut of the revenue from a Rockford casino that was part of the proposed bill.

Yet another issue with the bill that created some consternation at the last minute was Rita’s decision to change the language for a casino in Waukegan, broadening the geographic designation to all of Lake County.

“It just seemed fair to me because the south suburban casino area incorporates parts of six townships, so why not do the same thing for Lake County?” Rita said.

But Link represents Waukegan and was apparently offended that the language was changed.

Finally, Rita said he’s concerned that the Illinois Gaming Board wants too much control over off-site operations at the Chicago casino.

“But this is a major win for the south suburbs,” Rita said about his sponsorship of the gambling bill. “I live here (south suburbs). So they are now in the best position they’ve ever been in to make a casino happen.”



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