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Rita

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Updated: November 28, 2013 6:38AM



It sounds as though a gambling expansion bill is unlikely to come out of the veto session of the Legislature this fall, although Rep. Robert Rita (D-Blue Island) said “it’s still a possibility.”

After a committee hearing in Springfield on Wednesday, Rita said there still are a lot of questions that haven’t been answered to his satisfaction.

Rita emerged last spring as the chief sponsor of the casino bill in the House after Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) withdrew because of a perceived conflict of interest.

Among the concerns Rita has raised is why the Senate version of the bill names specific municipalities as sites for four of the five new casinos being proposed but a casino in the Southland is defined as a large geographic region.

“I don’t understand the difference between our area, and I represent the south suburbs, and the rest of the state,” Rita said. “I’m concerned that we’re going to be pitting suburb against suburb, and that may not be the best thing for the area. I’m just looking to answer the question, ‘why are we different than the rest of Illinois?’ ”

Ed Paesel, executive director of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, testified at Wednesday’s hearing and supported the broader geographic designation.

“Our view is that competition will provide the best site,” Paesel told me during a telephone conversation Friday. “By choosing one specific site, you could choose a site that the developer doesn’t like.

“By opening the process up, everyone is better off, including the state, through a healthy competition. That’s our position, and competition is what’s made this country great.”

When I asked Paesel why the Southland is different from Rockford, Danville or Chicago (three of the sites specified in the Senate bill), he noted that a casino expansion bill years ago suggested Ford Heights as the site for the south suburbs.

“That resulted in a lot of criticism as to whether Ford Heights was capable of properly vetting a casino plan, and it wasn’t something that was in the best interests of the area,” Paesel said.

“We’re comfortable with a regional designation. We just wanted to make it clear that any casino expansion bill include the south suburbs.”

He also said state legislators from the south suburbs cannot agree on a single site, and any attempt to name one municipality would likely alienate lawmakers representing other suburbs.

“It would split the south suburban delegation, and you wouldn’t have enough votes to pass a casino bill,” Paesel said.

Another concern of Rita’s is the lack of specific language about revenue sharing in the Senate version of the legislation.

“I want to see some language that would include revenue sharing, and I’m still not sure about the best way to do that,” Rita said. “I’m inclined to support something that would go into a special fund for capital projects, so that poorer suburbs could have money for state and federal matching grants that they don’t have now.

“I’m worried that if the money just goes into a general revenue fund, it will just sort of disappear. I want people to see where that casino money goes and how it improves their communities.”

Rita asked Paesel to discuss that with the suburban mayors and come back with a proposal.

On Thursday, the association met and no specific plan was generated, according to sources.

“We were told they would draw something up and get back to us at a future meeting,” Country Club Hills Mayor Dwight Welch said.

Welch, who has wanted a casino in his city for years, said he had no problems with a revenue-sharing proposal.

“We’ve always been willing to share the revenue with everyone,” he said. “Our plan has always included revenue sharing, not just with municipalities but with schools districts and townships.”

Another person who was at Thursday’s meeting said Paesel seemed inclined to include language in the gambling bill that would broaden the casino revenue sharing to all 42 towns within the area specified in the legislation.

“They seemed to have a formula in mind that, among other things, took into account the poverty or financial wealth of the municipalities,” the source said. “But it all seemed very vague. I don’t think they had it really worked out yet how they were going to do this.

“It seemed like the main point was getting everyone on board with a revenue-sharing plan that could be included in the legislation.”

But Rita said there were other parts of the gambling expansion bill that could still take time to sort out, among them a proposal for Chicago to create its own regulatory board.

“The Illinois Gaming Board testified and was quite clear that they didn’t think that would be a good idea,” Rita said. “Chicago wants its own gaming board to have authority over its own casino and creating two bureaucracies really doesn’t seem to make sense.

“The state gaming board does a pretty good job, and I really don’t know right now what the benefit would be of creating a second gaming board that could create conflicts between the two and make things more difficult for everyone.”

Rita said he was surprised that there was no testimony at Wednesday’s hearing that directly addressed the issue of putting video gambling machines at the two Chicago airports, Midway and O’Hare.

“This is sort of a new idea and I thought we would hear some testimony in opposition, but no one really came forward on that point,” he said. “I’m still concerned about how we do that and want to make sure we get the language right on where the machines would be located.

“I’m not opposed to it, but it’s another area I would like to know more about.”

Rita said he wasn’t sure if more committee hearings would be necessary but reiterated that a lot of questions remain unanswered.

“I want to do this right,” he said. “If we can do it this fall, we will. But if we need more time, we will wait.”



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