In what has practically become a harbinger of spring, state lawmakers who favor gambling expansion began their annual push Wednesday by debating the latest plan to bring a massive casino to Chicago.
But neither Gov. Pat Quinn nor Mayor Rahm Emanuel breathed much life into the proposal, as they joined Republican governor candidate Bruce Rauner in declining to weigh in on the merits of the legislation.
The newest version separates plans for a Chicago casino with up to 10,000 betting positions from a broader package that would add a total of five new casinos across the state and allow slot machines at horse tracks. The shift in strategy is aimed at blunting arguments that the gambling market outside the city is already saturated with existing casinos and video gambling machines at neighborhood bars.
However, peeling a Chicago casino out of a larger gambling package presents its own problems as Downstate and suburban lawmakers may be less inclined to vote in favor unless they get a piece of the gambling pie. But sponsoring Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, said a new provision that would split revenue from a Chicago casino evenly between the city and state should help win support of legislators and the governor, who has vetoed two previous expansion bills.
While final approval of a major gambling deal has remained elusive for years, proponents contend the potential revenue can’t be ignored. The state faces a budget cliff if portions of a temporary tax hike expire as scheduled in January, while Emanuel is pushing for a property tax increase to help shore up the city’s struggling pension systems.
Under the latest measure, the city could use the money to pay for pensions, education or infrastructure. The state would have to divide the money between education and construction.
“This is an option,” said Rita, who is leading gambling negotiations. “These are the three areas where everybody is saying we need revenue.”