City not at the table for casino discussion

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They said it could be “the largest casino in the world.”

A “jewel” in Chicago’s skyline. 

Or an idea whose “day was yesterday.”

Tourism boosters, corruption fighters, religious leaders and gaming lobbyists all had their say Wednesday on a proposal for a massive state-owned Chicago casino that could dwarf all others in Illinois. State lawmakers listened to their testimony during a day-long hearing held conveniently across the street from City Hall. 

But Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s staff skipped the hearing — where City Hall loomed through a sixth-floor window in the Michael A. Bilandic Building — and instead told the Chicago Sun-Times “the mayor does not believe it is appropriate to talk about gaming until we have addressed pension reform.”

State Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, led the hearing and is pushing a gambling expansion bill in Springfield he hopes can finally survive Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto pen. He’s filed two key amendments, both of which could bring a casino to Chicago. 

But one of those amendments would allow the construction of a casino that would have to be in Chicago and could have from 4,000 to 10,000 gaming positions. Existing Illinois casinos are limited to just 1,200. Chicago would split revenue from that casino equally with Illinois, though Cook County and south suburban communities would get a cut of Chicago’s half. Rita said the mayor could use the city’s share to shore up the pension problems occupying City Hall. 

“We provide a lot of money for pensions,” Rita said. 

Last week the Illinois House and Senate approved Emanuel’s plan to raise employee contributions by 29 percent and reduce employee benefits to shore up the Municipal Employees and Laborers Pension funds. 

The same-day approval came after Emanuel stripped out any reference to the $250 million property tax the mayor is planning; that shifted the political burden of passing that tax increase to Chicago aldermen. Quinn, who had said “no can do” to the property-tax hike, has 60 days to act on the bill. 

Rita said estimates of how much annual revenue the casino would create for Chicago vary from “a few hundred million” to almost $1 billion. He said he hopes to try to pass a bill by May 31. 

To that end, the Illinois House executive committee heard testimony from proponents and critics of Rita’s amendments. Rita pointed out the size of Chicago’s casino in his first proposal would be driven by the market, with an eye toward building a comprehensive entertainment center in the city. His alternative is a plan allowing 4,000 to 6,000 gaming positions in a Chicago casino but also casinos in the south suburbs and Lake, Winnebago and Vermilion counties. 

Kim Goluska of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce encouraged the committee to build a Chicago casino in the heart of downtown — possibly at the Thompson Center, the Congress Plaza Hotel or on the top floors of Macy’s — to complement Chicago’s existing entertainment venues. 

He said even a casino with 10,000 gaming positions wouldn’t satisfy the demand in Chicago for gambling. 

“If we’re going to do it in Chicago, we need to do it right,” Goluska said. 

But Tom Swoik, the executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, said Illinois’ gaming market has already been saturated, especially with the arrival of video gaming machines. 

“This is expansion upon expansion,” Swoik said. 

Although Emanuel took a pass on the hearing, he has spent nearly three years pushing for a Chicago casino, only to come up empty with Quinn. One of the earliest battles between Quinn and Emanuel was over a casino bill the governor vetoed, citing ethics concerns.

Last week, the mayor was asked about using revenue from a Chicago casino, either to minimize the $250 million property tax hike or to avert the need for yet another increase to stabilize police and fire pension funds.

He responded by saying that the Wall Street rating agency that has dropped Chicago’s bond rating four notches in eight months is demanding a “stable” source of revenue.

Emanuel reminded reporters that a casino has been on Chicago’s legislative wishlist for 25 years and it still hasn’t happened.

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