Rookie alderman wants video gaming with ‘opt-out’ provision

With doomsday for Chicago taxpayers fast approaching, a rookie alderman is proposing that the City Council authorize video gaming in Chicago to chip away at the $30 billion pension crisis.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is dead-set against the idea of saturated gambling with video machines in scores of neighborhood bars.

Instead, the mayor wants a land-based, city-owned casino downtown. That way, anyone offended by legalized gambling could simply avoid the casino.

But that option has eluded Chicago mayors for more than a generation.

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) has an answer to what he calls the “keep-it-over-there” theory: Allow individual wards to “opt out” of video gaming, just as they can already declare moratoriums on new liquor licenses.

“The mayor expressed his concerns. That is why we incorporated in my suggestion that it be ward-by-ward, similar to the way the Liquor Control Commission deals with moratoriums. So, if there are aldermen or areas that don’t want to see this, we can block it out so there isn’t a proliferation,” Lopez said.

“Plus, state statute dictates where these machines could go. There are a number of establishments — especially liquor establishments — that would not qualify because of location, whether it’s [too close to] schools, churches or other. So, it would not necessarily be as widespread as we feel. Especially with certain aldermen choosing not to participate.”

If the City Council authorized video gaming, 1,800 establishments could seek licensing to host approximately 7,600 machines, Lopez said, citing projections from the city’s Office of Budget and Management.

If all of those machines were authorized, the city would get $16 million in annual tax revenue. When you throw in a $500 annual licensing fee for each machine, the city’s take would approach $20 million.

That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the mayor’s plan to raise property taxes by $500 million for police and fire pensions and school construction. But it’s a way to ease the burden just a bit and the city could “work on” persuading the Illinois General Assembly to raise the city’s 5 percent revenue share.

“The casino over there theory helps the over there. I’m trying to offer this as a way to increase revenue and help some of our local establishments that are looking for this as a way to draw customers in,” Lopez said.

“In the surrounding suburbs, they have seen their local establishments see a huge draw. That would be a boon to a number of our neighborhoods that are looking for a shot in the arm.”

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, said he “appreciates” Lopez’s quest for revenue.

But, he said, “If we do that kind of piecemeal approach, it significantly impacts our attempt to get a casino. If you allow gambling throughout the city, trying to get gambling at one particular site is far less compelling. It weakens our case.”

Emanuel is scheduled to unveil his proposed 2016 budget on Tuesday.

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