Video poker in Chicago? Vallas and Johnson say deal us in

Under state law, local governments can prohibit video gambling machines from operating at restaurants or bars within their city limits. But both mayoral candidates favor lifting Chicago’s longstanding ban on the machines.

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A player swipes the screen on a video poker machine at the Monte Bar and Casino in Billings, Montana, in 2019.

A player swipes the screen on a video poker machine at the Monte Bar and Casino in Billings, Montana, in 2019.

Matthew Brown/AP-file

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Both candidates for Chicago mayor say they would support legalizing long-outlawed video gambling machines in the city if elected in the April 4 runoff election.

Under state law, local governments can prohibit video gambling machines from operating at restaurants or bars within their city limits. Chicago already had an ordinance on the books banning video gambling in the city, and rather than opting to legalize the machines, Chicago mayors have instead put their efforts into creating a casino in the city limits.

But with Chicago’s first casino in the works, both former CPS CEO Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson have expressed support for bringing video gambling to the city.

Vallas brought it up during an NBC 5 debate last week when asked how he would fund investments in the South and West sides. He said he would use “a fair share of TIF money, a fair share of casino money, the gaming money, the video poker money — which of course I would support and legalize — the developer fee money.”

In a written statement, a campaign spokesperson for Johnson said the commissioner “is a supporter of legalized video gambling as an important revenue source for critical investments in public safety, transportation, housing and other public accommodations.”

Paul Vallas (left) and Brandon Johnson shake hands as they prepare for their first forum as candidates in the mayoral runoff election at NBC 5 studios in the Peacock Tower last week.

Paul Vallas (left) and Brandon Johnson shake hands as they prepare for their first forum as candidates in the mayoral runoff election at NBC 5 studios in the Peacock Tower last week.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The statements come as Chicago awaits its first-ever casino after Mayor Lori Lightfoot helped to broker a deal with state lawmakers in 2019. Since then, the city selected Bally’s to operate a casino to be constructed in the River West neighborhood. Officials say it will bring in nearly $200 million in revenue to help boost underfunded pensions.

Casino operators have traditionally been opposed to expansion of other gambling options, such as video poker, out of fear it will chip away at brick and mortar casino revenue.

Bally’s Corporation declined to comment on the potential lifting of the ban.

Just days after Vallas expressed support for video gambling in the NBC debate, his campaign received a donation of $100,000 from Andrew Bluhm, the son of gambling mogul billionaire Neil Bluhm, who runs Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.

While Neil Bluhm has worked to stop the spread of video gambling in Illinois, Andrew Bluhm has previously invested in video poker.

Neil Bluhm, chairman of Rivers Casino, chats with a reporter during the public opening of BetRivers Sportsbook at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines in 2020.

Neil Bluhm, chairman of Rivers Casino, chats with a reporter during the public opening of BetRivers Sportsbook at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines in 2020.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

In a statement, Andrew Bluhm said he no longer has a stake in the video gambling company he once invested in — identified as Laredo Hospitality by the Chicago Tribune.

“I made a small investment in a very close friend’s business when he started a video gambling terminal business many years ago,” Andrew Bluhm said. “The business has been sold and I no longer have any interest in it.”

A spokesperson for Vallas said the mayoral candidate has not spoken to Andrew or Neil Bluhm about the candidate’s intentions to legalize video gambling if elected.

In 2019, Andrew Bluhm also donated a total of $100,000 to the unsuccessful mayoral campaign of Gery Chico and $50,000 to Bill Daley. Both candidates had expressed support for video gambling as a source of revenue for the city.

Vallas had also expressed support for video gambling in his 2019 mayoral bid, pointing to it as a source of revenue that could be dedicated to neighborhood infrastructure improvements, according to his campaign website at the time.

Video poker machines at a flower shop in Oak Lawn in 2013.

Video poker machines at a flower shop in Oak Lawn in 2013.

Chandler West~For Sun-Times Media

In 2022, gamblers wagered roughly $10.5 billion at Illinois video gambling machines, according to data from the Illinois Gaming Board. Municipalities with the machines brought home a share of $135.5 million in tax revenue.

As of February, there were more than 45,100 video gambling terminals across more than 8,200 venues throughout the state, according to Illinois Gaming Board data.

Video gambling has experienced rapid growth since it began in 2012, and the Illinois’ Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability noted in its September 2022 report on wagering that Chicago “has a huge impact on potential video gaming revenues,” and if the city allows for the terminals, the total “could grow significantly.”

While Chicago has not legalized video gambling, there is a patchwork of venues throughout the city that instead offer so-called sweepstakes machines, which are unregulated by the city but operate in much the same way as video gambling machines.

Neil Bluhm vehemently opposed the City Council’s efforts to lift the city’s ban on sports betting in 2021 — and testified during a City Council committee hearing that doing so would hurt the city’s casino. Bluhm submitted two bids to operate the city’s casino, but lost out to Bally’s.

“For almost 20 years, the city has tried to get a casino. Now, when you finally can have one, why would you create several competitors when the city gets no revenue from sports betting?” Bluhm said at the time.

Mariah Woelfel and Tessa Weinberg cover Chicago city politics for WBEZ. Follow them at @MariahWoelfel and @Tessa_Weinberg.

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