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A casino bill raises a red flag in Chicago

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A casino bill raises a red flag in Chicago

With their adjournment scheduled for Wednesday, lawmakers in Springfield spent the week rushing mostly inconsequential bills through the legislative funnel. The Senate passed its version of a budget, but the House has shown little interest and instead adjourned early Friday and canceled Saturday.

That's right. The House already took a week off this month and two weeks last month, preceded by a light schedule since the start of the year. Consider Friday's adjournment another indication there is no urgency, still, from House Speaker Michael Madigan to steady the state's financial tailspin.

He might, however, allow a vote on a massive casino expansion. A House committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Monday, but we won't be surprised if that gets canceled, too.

The bill would add casinos in Chicago, Lake County, the south suburbs, Rockford, Danville and Williamson County in southern Illinois. It would allow the state's existing 10 casinos to add more machines and tables. It would permit slots at Chicago's airports. And it would legalize slots at the state's horse racing tracks.

We know. A cumbrous gambling bill is an annual ritual, fed by special interest groups, lobbyists and consultants who make money off the constant drumbeat. That beat got a little louder recently when Gov. Bruce Rauner said he would be willing to support additional casinos if they were part of a broader budget and reform package.

But wait. Let's examine.

The latest 533-page expansion bill comes after the slow rollout of legalized video gambling in bars and restaurants, which the legislature approved and former Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law in 2009. Consumers can sit at poker terminals at thousands of mom-and-pop taverns, gambling cafes and even some fast-food joints. Now up and running, the state's video poker footprint is so expansive, it is the equivalent of Illinois having added roughly 22 casinos.

As casino proposals have come and gone, this page has been mildly supportive of expanding gaming, particularly in Chicago, where it would serve tourists and conventiongoers. But the longer the proposals have simmered, and the more video poker machines that have come on line, the more relevant the saturation question becomes. Illinois now has more opportunities to gamble than Las Vegas does.

The state's nonpartisan forecasting arm predicted the latest gambling expansion bill would raise an additional $560 million annually, about 18 percent more than what the state receives now. That's a nice chunk of change but not nearly as lucrative as supporters claim. The new bill also would lower tax rates on all casinos.

A Chicago casino would be overseen by the Illinois Gaming Board and a new Chicago Casino Development Authority, a five-member board chosen by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. While the bill stipulates that the Gaming Board would maintain ultimate control over a Chicago casino, the mayor's appointees also would have a say on contracts, including choosing the operator of the casino and selecting locations for both a temporary site and a permanent site, among many other duties.

That's a red flag. City Hall should have no oversight role of a casino in which Chicago has any ownership. A casino here should be regulated like all the others: by the Gaming Board.

It's unclear how the two bodies would work together, or serve as checks and balances, or overlap and clash.

One thing is clear: The Gaming Board and its experienced, professional staff should lead the development and oversight of every aspect of a Chicago casino, no matter how inconvenient and time-consuming for an impatient mayor and hungry developers. We're talking about a multibillion-dollar project, with plenty of opportunities for organized crime to try to insert itself in construction and operation.

This bill hasn't gotten much attention, given the budget standoff and the tradition of gambling bills piling up, up, up, then toppling over before the May 31 adjournment deadline.

But by the looks of this version, that wouldn't be a bad thing.

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