Chico bets on Chicago casino, legal marijuana to help solve pension crisis

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Mayoral candidate Gery Chico. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Calling the legalization of recreational marijuana “inevitable,” mayoral candidate Gery Chico said Monday he would use those revenues and the jackpot from an elusive Chicago casino to satisfy a $1 billion spike in pension payments.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pushed through a $2 billion avalanche of tax increases and only just begun to solve Chicago’s $28 billion pension crisis. And he’s promising to lay out “options” minimizing the need for another painful round of post-election property taxes in December.

On Monday, Chico vowed to “start hacking away” at the $1 billion spike in pension payments “without putting the 15th brick on the back of the taxpayer.”

“An overwhelming number of Chicagoans support the legalization of marijuana — and I do, too,” Chico told the City of Club of Chicago. He then added, jokingly: “A pall comes over the room.”

Chico noted legalization of recreational marijuana could bring the state of Illinois from $350 million to $700 million a year.

“The next mayor has got to sit at that table and fight for Chicago’s share of the pie . . . We’re gonna be the place where the largest number of dispensaries are located, and the stores that will sell this merchandise — not only to people in Chicago, but to people in the Midwest,” he said.

“We can’t leave a dime on the table. Not a dime. And if that means we need a new home-rule tax on top of what the state’s thinking about, that’s what we need to be in there fighting for.”

Chico also would start “re-examining cases of defendants serving time for possession in order to grant clemency for time served and expunge their records,” he said.

“It makes no sense to have people burdened with criminal records for something we’ve now made legal.”

Chico was chief of staff to former Mayor Richard M. Daley when Daley embraced a plan by three Las Vegas casinos to build a casino and adult theme park in downtown Chicago. It never happened.

Now that Democrat J.B. Pritzker is the overwhelming favorite to defeat Gov. Bruce Rauner in next week’s election, Chico is betting heavily that Chicago will finally get that elusive casino.

Although the local market is now saturated with casinos, Chico estimated a Chicago casino still could net the city “up to $300 million a year depending on the ownership and tax structure” the plan includes.

“This kind of project would create thousands of construction and permanent jobs for our residents. It would create business for our businesses in Chicago and it would attract even more tourists,” he said.

“This idea has been discussed for years. And since our legislature will likely be considering sports betting now, it’s time to seize the opportunity and see if we can do this the right way in Chicago instead of simply taxing our citizens. Let’s stop sending the Illinois gambling dollars to Indiana.”

Chico’s spirited 2011 campaign nearly forced Rahm Emanuel into a run-off. In 2015, he endorsed Emanuel’s re-election bid.

On Monday, Chico credited Emanuel with doing a “fine job” recruiting corporate headquarters to Chicago.

He also said he was open to Emanuel’s controversial $10 billion pension borrowing.

“It’s worth looking at . . . I don’t think we should just be going, ‘Tax ’em. Tax ’em. Fee, water, this, that.’ We have to be careful with this. Citizens get to the tipping point and people head for the exits,” he said.

“I just want to make sure that . . . we have kind of a safety valve so that, if interest rates go so high and our returns on investment are so paltry that we don’t saddle those taxpayers with a back-door tax increase.”

Chico also vowed to expand “quality options” for CPS high school students, confront the issue of under-performing schools and “repurpose” dozens of schools still empty five years after Emanuel’s record round of 50 school closings.

“Let’s get these buildings filled with affordable housing, urban farming, job training, early childhood programs and other uses. And let’s use city incentives to leverage private investment to get it done now,” Chico said.

“I know we can do better. I know with 100 percent confidence because I’ve seen it and done it before.”

Chico wants to invest in “entire neighborhoods, blocks at a time, to create critical mass,” he said.

“It’s not enough to build one store. It’s not enough to move one city agency into a neighborhood. It won’t work.”

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