Time to place your bets

Senate Bill 744 could be one of the most important bills to survive the Illinois General Assembly gauntlet in recent memory.

But there continues to be mixed feelings over whether Chicago should expand gaming. That was evident at a debate in Chicago last night sponsored by the Better Government Association.

The legislation, which began as an amendment to the Illinois Horse Racing Act of 1975 in the House of Representatives, authorizes five new casino licenses in Illinois, including a land-based casino in Chicago owned by the city, and grows the number gaming positions at various facilities around the state.

According to an analysis by the BGA there are currently 10,539 “gaming positions” spread over the state's nine riverboat casinos; current state law permits 10,800 positions in all. A gaming position is essentially a seat at a gambling table, like craps or blackjack, or a slot machine.

The BGA projects that SB 744 could grow the authorized number of positions to 37,200 after 2013, including up to 4,000 at the Chicago casino.

Passage of SB 744 has supporters and opponents locking horns once again over the potential economic benefits of gambling, the moral dimension of using gambling-based taxes and fees to bolster public sector budgets and the social costs of increasing gambling in Illinois, especially on poor and working class households.

It's a battle that will play out in the coming weeks as Gov. Pat Quinn considers whether to sign the bill, veto it, or negotiate with legislators to create an expansion plan more to his liking.

For State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), the bill, which he has been working to pass for more than 20 years, is a no-brainer.

At last night's debate, Lang, to summarize, offered the following chain of logic: gambling is legal in Illinois; residents here are traveling out of state to play; so why not keep them in the state, and in Chicago, to place their bets and spend their money?

“We must bring those people back,” he said, referring to Illinoisians gambling in Indiana, “along with people going to Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Las Vegas and the Bahamas and all over the world, who are traveling to access an industry that is legal in the state of Illinois.”

Lang told the crowd that the social costs of gambling will be here “whether or not we pass this bill” because people are traveling elsewhere to gamble.

Critic Anita Bedell, from Illinois Church Action on Alcohol & Addiction Problems, said gambling in Chicago will exacerbate a host of ills the city already struggles with. “There are already problems with foreclosures in Chicago. There already are people struggling with not having jobs. There already are people who are homeless,” she said.

Revenered Phillip Blackwell, of the First United Methodist Church in Chicago's Loop, criticized the structure of the bill, which allows the City of Chicago to own the casino proposed for here.

“There's something so cynical about making Chicago's government the house,” he said. “The house only really exists for one reason – to create more gamblers to lose money.”

Having government take money from its citizens in this way, Blackwell said, is a damages the public sector's ability to create the common good. “There's something undermining our public confidence with that kind of notion,” he said.

Michael Mini, a director with the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, said Wednesday that an analysis prepared for the chamber suggests that a casino in the city could create $650 million in tax revenue, to be split between the city and state. It could also potentially bring 2,500 jobs at the casino, another 3,200 positions through casino suppliers, plus tens of thousands of more jobs across the region spun off by restaurants, theaters, and the like. The chamber is a supporter of SB 744.

Bedell and Blackwell dispute those projections, however, saying they ignore what Blackwell called the “ambient costs” of gambling. And Bedell pointed out there are more people who have asked the state gambling board to exclude them from the state's riverboat casinos --more than 8,200-- than people directly employed by them --nearly 6,800.

“With the economy – with people not having jobs, with addition and other problems, there's no guarantee all the money hoped for and all the jobs hoped for will come to fruition,” she went on to say.

Another gaming system the state currently offers – the lottery – came up near the end of the BGA panel on Wednesday. Someone in the audience framed his or her question by stating the lottery “hasn't led to the downfall of society.” So why should expanded gambling be any different, the question went.

The state lotto is, however, disproportionately used by Chicago's communities of color. To quote from an investigation The Chicago Reporter published in 2002:

The 10 ZIP code areas with the highest lottery sales over the last six fiscal years were 60609, 60617, 60618, 60619, 60620, 60628, 60629, 60639, 60647 and 60651. They were all in Chicago and included areas across the city like South Deering, Washington Heights, Irving Park and Logan Square. Census figures showed that eight of those ZIP code areas had unemployment rates higher than the citywide average of 10 percent, and all 10 had average incomes of less than $20,000 a year, compared with a citywide average of $24,000. Census data also show that five were at least 70 percent African American and two were at least 60 percent Latino.

--Micah Maidenberg

© Community Renewal Society 2011

Update: This post has been corrected to fix an error in how the Reporter's 2002 investigation was described.

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    I was part of a coalition that opposed gambling in Chicago in the early 1990's. The extensive research we did at that time persuaded me that relying on gambling for taxes in Chicago was a terrible public policy. Casinos prey on the working class and poorer communities and is a regressive plan. Casinos add crime, addiction and corruption to communities and we have plenty of that already here.

    We need to focus on what makes Chicago unique - our lake front, our culture, our architecture, our university system - to build a sustainable and just economic development plan - one, that above all, places a bet on our children to make them the smartest workers on the planet. We can't rely on parties and Ferris wheels for economic prosperity. Those plans reward the insiders and the folks that already have.

    Sign this Tiwtter petition - urge the Governor to veto SB 744 - http://act.ly/3r1.

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