If you thought the push for gambling expansion in Illinois was heating up before, I’ll lay you 100-1 odds you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
On Friday, when the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously tossed out the General Assembly’s cost-cutting pension reform as unconstitutional, you could hear the engines of gaming lobbyists’ jets stacking up over Springfield.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants a Chicago casino. Illinois racetracks want to add slots to become racinos.
The politicians of this, the worst state in the nation in terms of bond ratings and pension debt, are desperate for revenue from any source other than new or increased taxes.
Against this dire backdrop, I offer my own recent gambling experience:
Two days before the running of the Kentucky Derby last week, I headed for an off-track betting (OTB) location on the North Side. A friend of the family was celebrating his 48th anniversary as a priest. Priests being notoriously hard to shop for, we came up with a gift idea. Our priest-friend is a Kentucky native, so we told him to pick a horse in the Derby and we’d bet on it for him.
He picked American Pharaoh.
I went to place the bet. But, a novice in the OTB world, I didn’t know how to navigate the betting terminals and asked the guy at the front desk for help.
“You new in town?” he said with a sly smile. Before I could answer, he said, laughing, “I know you’re not. I see some of your news pals in here from time to time.”
He listened politely to my priest story and didn’t believe a word of it, having heard every possible crazy rationale for gambling over the years. But he took my hundred bucks and fed it into a terminal, $40 to win, $30 to place, and $30 to show.
I couldn’t help noticing all the people — mostly men — who filled the tables and bar stools in this OTB. Except for the sound of television screens, it was as quiet as a church and the parishioners, few looking prosperous, were praying over their racing forms.
American Pharaoh won that weekend. With 5-2 odds, a hundred bucks paid $292. I went back to the OTB to collect and there was my guy behind payout counter.
“You still telling that priest story?” he joked.
Illinois has always been a gambling state, first with racetracks, then casinos, now video poker in bars. Most of the moral outrage has come and gone.
Right now, in Illinois’ darkest fiscal hour, it’s all about the math. Proponents like state Rep. Lou Lang have long argued expansion brings jobs and revenue. Opponents, such as Rev. Tom Grey, argue that any revenue is severely offset by the public-sector costs of addiction. Fiscal watchdogs like Ralph Martire and Laurence Msall consider gaming highly regressive — hitting low-income people hardest — and incapable of producing more than a drop in the revenue bucket to fill Illinois’ gaping hole.
There has been bipartisan dereliction of duty when it comes to the political leadership of Illinois making truly hard revenue decisions for the right reasons.
The stakes are too high now to rely on games.
Or play them.