Pols playing their hand like it’s Go Fish, not High Stakes Poker
Our political leaders were so eager to solve the state’s and city’s financial problems on the backs of gamblers that they failed to take into account that casino owners need to make a profit, too.
Gee whiz, how did they screw that up?
Chicago tries for decades to get a casino, and when the stars finally align with a supportive governor, mayor and legislature, they pass a law that we’re now told won’t work.
It’s not just a matter of the locations proposed on the city’s South and West sides being less than optimal from a revenue-generating standpoint, which everyone knew from Day One.
Worse than that, a study commissioned by the Illinois Gaming Board found that ANY Chicago casino project, regardless of location, is “generally not financially feasible” given the “onerous” tax structure set forth under the new law.
As things now stand, say the consultants from Union Gaming Analytics, building a casino in Chicago would likely be a losing proposition for developers, and therefore a bad bet for the city.
Chalk it up to one more casualty of our state and city being broke.
In this case, our political leaders were so eager to solve the state’s and city’s financial problems on the backs of gamblers that they failed to take into account that casino owners need to make a profit, too.
According to the study, the final straw that makes a Chicago casino unworkable is a 33 1/3% city “privilege tax” to be imposed on adjusted gross receipts — which is over and above the existing tax structure for all other Illinois casinos.
The result, they say, is an effective tax rate of 72%, which would give the Chicago casino a distinction that’s become all too familiar — “the highest effective gaming tax and fee structure in the U.S.”
Shouldn’t somebody have seen this coming?
Mayor Lori Lightfoot says she did.
Indeed, there were rumblings from the start that the city wasn’t satisfied with the viability of the revenue plan, which is why the legislation called for an independent financial feasibility analysis.
But it’s also true the legislation was passed in the waning hours of the General Assembly at a time when the city was at a weak point with Mayor Rahm Emanuel just having left office and the newly elected Lightfoot still getting her feet on the ground.
Having covered the issue in Springfield at the time, I can tell you the Lightfoot team was less than transparent about what it wanted to see in a gaming bill.
Emanuel had always insisted on a city-owned casino, which wasn’t going to fly with Downstate legislators, who chafe at Chicago getting its own special deals.
Lightfoot was willing to give up on that notion to get a deal done, but as is now apparent, the last-minute maneuvering produced a flawed result.
The question now is whether the city can go back to the Legislature to come up with something that will work.
Union Gaming Analytics suggests removing the Chicago privilege tax to make the city casino more profitable for a private developer.
The problem with that idea is the city needs to generate as much money as it can from the casino and won’t give up its expected share without looking to the state to compromise as well. That gets us back in the realm of Chicago looking for a special deal.
The city lost a lot of its leverage with the passage of the casino expansion bill. Most of the competing gambling interests in Illinois, who had succeeded in blocking Chicago in the past, already got what they wanted in the horse trading.
Weighing in favor of a deal getting done is that the state needs the money from a Chicago casino just as much as the city, which means Gov. J.B. Pritzker will be doing what he can to accommodate Lightfoot.
As long we’re going to do this, I’m all for milking a Chicago casino of every last cent of public benefit, but we also have to take into account business realities if we don’t want to end up with a bankrupt boondoggle.
After that, we can go back to arguing about where to put it.