Even with bucks for pensions, city casino a heavy lift

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It sounds so simple from the outside: Build a casino in Chicago and use the revenue it generates to help pay for the pensions owed city retirees.

A Chicago casino not only would give tourists another way to leave their money behind, but also capture the hundreds of millions of dollars Illinois residents already are dropping annually in Indiana casinos.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s idea to do just that is bound to get extra attention from the Legislature now that the Illinois Supreme Court struck down a law cutting pension benefits to state employees.

Everybody in Springfield is looking for a way to generate more revenue for the city and state without raising taxes.

But there are reasons the city has gone 25 years without being able to break into the casino gambling arena.

Some of those complications slipped to the surface again Monday at a legislative hearing intended to focus on the Chicago proposal. Others were stirring in the background.

For the second year in a row, Emanuel’s administration opted not to send anyone to the hearing who might be able to answer substantive questions from legislators about what the mayor has in mind.

Instead, the city sent a representative from its tourism bureau, Choose Chicago, to say a casino would be a swell idea.

South suburban legislators, whose support would be crucial to any Chicago casino bill, believe their region also deserves a casino to compete for that Indiana gambling market.

The same goes for Lake County, long left out of the casino mix despite its proximity to Wisconsin.

For the existing Illinois casino industry, already fearful of competition from a Chicago casino, the prospect of creating two more suburban casinos as well makes it even worse.

Those original Illinois riverboats, along with the more recently opened Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, are still licking their wounds over the revenue losses they’ve suffered since the addition of video gaming in bars and restaurants.

Their lobbyists argued anew Monday that the Chicago-area gambling market is already “oversaturated.”

My own view is that there can be no saturation of the local gambling market as long as there is no casino in downtown Chicago.It’s equally obvious that a Chicago casino will take customers away from some of those other Illinois casinos, not just the Indiana ones.

You don’t need a consultant study to tell you that.

The video gaming industry popped up at Monday’s hearing with its own study to make the case it has proven an overall plus for Illinois government finances, despite the dropoff in casino business, and could do even better if Chicago would end its prohibition on the gambling machines.

Then there’s the horse-racing industry, which maintains its survival is dependent on allowing slot machines at racetracks — or some other revenue enhancement — to make up for the gambling dollars it has lost to the casinos and video gaming operators.

A representative of the Illinois Thoroughbred Breeders Association argued the state is in danger of losing the agribusiness industry now supported by horse racing if new revenues aren’t found to increase winners’ purses.

Noticeable by his presence — and silence — was Arlington International Racecourse Chairman Dick Duchossois.

Questioned afterward by reporters, Duchossois demurred when asked whether the city can gets its casino without taking care of the horse-racing industry.

“The one thing we do know is everyone needs more money now. Where does that money come from and what is going to put back into society?” Duchossois said.

While Duchossois is highly influential in the General Assembly, each of the aforementioned interest groups has its own legislative supporters, any of whom might oppose a Chicago casino bill unless accommodations are made.

There’s a possibility, I suppose, that Gov. Bruce Rauner could change this historic dynamic if he is willing to hold Republican legislators in line for a Chicago casino in exchange for the city’s support for some portion of his turnaround agenda.

More likely, a gambling bill as always will rise or fall on its own weight.

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