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EDITORIAL: Understaffed Gaming Board needs a fast bulking up

Organized crime and other unwanted sorts are always looking to sneak in a casino’s back door, and the stakes are expanding fast.

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A historic increase in legal gambling in Illinois, signed into law on June 28, means the understaffed Illinois Gaming Board has an enormous and difficult job ahead.

It’s way past time to fill the board’s vacant positions, boost the staff and pay the chairperson, if not other members, more than the standard $300 per diem for attending meetings.

The board has an excellent track record of keeping unsavory types from getting their hands on Illinois casinos and video gambling machines. But organized crime and other unwanted sorts are always looking to sneak in the back door, and the stakes are expanding fast.

A fully staffed Gaming Board, which Illinois does not have right now, is a necessity.

In the wake of a historically productive spring legislative session, we’re told, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration is focused on filling vacancies on the Gaming Board and other agency boards. And, we’re told, he’s looking for the best people to carry out the state’s big expansion in gambling — including the creation of a Vegas-sized casino in Chicago.

Fine. But let’s be sure that shaping up the Gaming Board is at the top of governor’s to-do list.

If the wrong people get their hands on the new casinos and sports betting in Illinois, the cost to the state could be great. As was the case in Nevada for decades — and, many would say, to this day — sinister forces in the gambling world are adept at using their riches to influence local elections and buy legislators to gain and maintain control of the market.

Right now, the Gaming Board is woefully unprepared.

As Mitchell Armentrout reported in Thursday’s Chicago Sun-Times, two of the five seats on the board remain unfilled, including that of chairperson. Moreover, it’s hard to find good people to appoint because the job is time-consuming and challenging and pays just that $300-per-meeting per diem. By contrast, at the Illinois Pollution Control Board, which also deals in complicated and consequential issues, the chairman is paid $121,040 a year and the members are paid $117,043 a year.

Of the three members on the Gaming Board, two are new to the job. So is the administrator, Marcus Fruchter, who came over in May from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement division.

The last time the board approved a casino license, it took years to investigate the matter. Now the board will have to deal with six casinos, more video gambling, slot machines and table games at the state’s three race tracks, a new south suburban “racino” and newly authorized sports gambling.

Statewide, the number of gambling positions will soar from under 44,000 to almost 80,000.

That means a lot of work.

In the past, crime figures have used hidden ownership, money laundering and the running of companies that supply casinos to profit under the table. Former Gaming Board Chairman Aaron Jaffe said it can be difficult to detect crime influence on companies tied to casinos because a company can be owned by several other companies, which in turn can be owned by other companies.

The 800-plus-page gambling bill approved by the Legislature last spring was pushed through in the session’s closing days. It went to the floor of the Senate with no committee hearings and some legislators — undoubtedly most — never read it.

The Gaming Board will have to be far more deliberative and thorough. That will require more top-quality people — paid, if that’s what it takes — with every hand on deck as soon as possible.

Chart: Chicago Sun-Times. Source: Illinois Gaming Board

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