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Legalized marijuana and casino gambling: Problems with Illinois laws

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Backslapping and bonhomie reigned in Springfield after lawmakers passed landmark legislation legalizing recreational marijuana and expanding casino gambling in Illinois.

Both bills had bobbed and weaved through a gantlet of lobbying, horse-trading and brinkmanship to become law in the final days of the legislature's spring session. Sponsors had navigated varying and sometimes conflicting demands of myriad interest groups with enough clout to torpedo the bills. In the end, they won support from businesses, municipalities, community activists and others.

"I applaud my fellow lawmakers for their historic vote," marijuana bill sponsor Rep. Kelly Cassidy gushed, while Gov. J.B. Pritzker crowed that gambling expansion would have Illinois "leading the Midwest in a new industry" and "generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for our state."

And the new laws indeed represent significant breakthroughs. Illinois became the first state to establish a comprehensive framework for a recreational marijuana market by legislation, rather than cobbling together ground rules in response to a voter referendum. Casino expansion came after years of failed attempts by the Legislature to add more gambling venues in Illinois.

So it's not surprising that lawmakers were in a self-congratulatory mood when the gavel came down in June. But as the whoops and high-fives fade into memory, a worrisome reality is dawning: Difficult as the sausage-making process may have been, legalizing pot and authorizing more casino licenses was the easy part. Creating regulatory and fiscal conditions for a flourishing market that generates the amount of tax revenues lawmakers expect is something else again.

And make no mistake—desperation for tax revenue provided essential impetus that helped push these bills across the goal line. Illinois needs billions to reduce a pension funding gap exceeding $130 billion and pay off nearly $7 billion in past-due bills. Legislation enacted during the spring session will ask Illinois voters to approve a graduated income tax that Pritzker expects to produce an additional $3 billion in annual revenue by imposing higher rates on wealthier taxpayers.

Pritzker and the Legislature also hope for big bucks from pot smokers and gamblers. They're counting on $350 million annually from the Illinois Gaming Act, which adds six new casinos to the state's current total of 10, legalizes sports betting and allows thousands of new slot machines, including many at Chicago airports. A report commissioned by legislators backing marijuana legalization forecast pot sales would yield as much as $676 million a year for the state.

In coming up with these revenue projections, however, lawmakers seem to have overlooked the financial impact of compromises and concessions that got the bills passed. Both contain provisions likely to impede market growth and reduce investors' returns, which in turn will leave Illinois with less tax revenue.

For example, to win support from Chicago, the gambling bill not only earmarks a casino license for the city, but allows Chicago to levy a 33 percent tax on the city casino's revenue. Combined with state taxes, the Chicago casino would carry a tax burden of 72 percent. A consultant's report prepared for the state's casino regulator warned that such a heavy tax load would wipe out profits for years, likely making investors unwilling to finance a city casino.

"We believe no traditional financing would be available for (a Chicago casino) as debt servicing would likely well exceed any modest profits generated," Union Gaming Analytics wrote in the report.

No financing, no Chicago casino, no tax revenue for the city or state.

The pot bill, for its part, included a couple of concessions to municipalities around the state. The first allows towns and cities to opt out of legalization, maintaining a prohibition on marijuana sales within their boundaries. The second authorizes counties and towns to levy their own tax on marijuana sales. That could add another 6 percentage points to marijuana taxes already set at a hefty 20 percent to 34.75 percent.

Several towns, including sizable suburbs Naperville and Libertyville, have taken steps to opt out, potentially shrinking the geographic market for legal sales. Other municipalities appear eager to tax pot to the max, prompting bill sponsors to warn them against making the legal product too pricey to compete with street-corner dealers.

These real-world financial obstacles underscore a troublesome truth sometimes lost on lawmakers caught up in legislative give-and-take: Bills that can attract enough support to pass don't always add up to a winning business proposition. And that can turn their triumphs into hollow victories.

Read more https://www.chicagobusiness.com/joe-cahill-business/legal-pot-and-more-casinos-now-comes-hard-part

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