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Lightfoot back at the table in Springfield, betting a Chicago casino is in the cards

Lightfoot met with the four legislative leaders, Senate Democrats and both Republican caucuses. The trip came a day before Gov. J.B. Pritzker was to deliver his budget address – although Lightfoot did not meet with the governor.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot leaves an Illinois Senate Republican caucus on Tuesday at the Capitol.
Tina Sfondeles/Chicago Sun-Times

SPRINGFIELD — Making another play for the elusive Chicago casino, Mayor Lori Lightfoot met with Republican and Democratic legislators on Tuesday and said she had “very good conversations” and believes she made “progress.”

The mayor last made the pitch for the long-sought revenue source during November’s veto session, but she left empty-handed.

She remains optimistic.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that the support that was there is solid and that we get the additional votes that we need to get it over,” Lightfoot said on Tuesday.

Last year, despite Lightfoot’s visits to the Capitol — some House Democrats said they’d never seen a Chicago mayor in their caucus before — lawmakers only passed a separate, watered down gambling fix bill that beefed up background checks on applicants for casino and sports wagering licenses.

Ultimately, Lightfoot couldn’t get enough support — and some lawmakers wanted an extra piece of revenue for their districts. There were also accusations of regionalism and questions about why Downstate legislators should help Chicago once again. Despite that common refrain, lawmakers last year came together to support the governor’s plan to combine roughly 650 suburban and downstate police and fire pension funds to try to increase efficiency and lower costs.

Mayor Lori Lighfoot talks to reporters in Springfield earlier this year.
Mayor Lori Lighfoot talks to reporters in Springfield on Tuesday.
Neal Earley/Chicago Sun-Times

At issue with the Chicago casino is the tax structure for any potential developer in light of a state-commissioned study that deemed the taxes “too onerous” for anyone to turn a profit. And a report released in early February by the state Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability found total revenue from the state’s 10 existing casinos — and the tax dollars they generate — dropped for a seventh straight year in 2019. That has raised even more questions about the viability of a Chicago casino.

Lightfoot’s Tuesday visit included meetings with the four legislative leaders, Senate Democrats, both Republican caucuses and Chicago Democrats from both chambers. The trip came a day before Gov. J.B. Pritzker is set to deliver his second-year budget address – although Lightfoot did not meet with the Democratic governor on Tuesday.

Visiting the Illinois House Republican caucus for the first time since she took office, the mayor outlined details of her gaming proposal. Lightfoot also addressed questions from state Rep. Darren Bailey, R-Louisville, an ultra-conservative member of the House GOP’s so-called “Eastern Bloc” who last year sponsored legislation to kick Chicago out of Illinois. During that exchange, Bailey, a President Donald Trump supporter, tried to outline the needs of his rural community. Lightfoot, in turn, said she wanted him to understand Chicago’s needs: When the president attacks her city, she has to defend it, she told him.

“People have strongly held opinions, and so do I, and we had an exchange about it,” Lightfoot told reporters.

State Senate President Don Harmon talks to reporters in Springfield on Tuesday.
State Senate President Don Harmon talks to reporters in Springfield on Tuesday.
Neal Earley/Chicago Sun-Times

While Lightfoot and Pritzker did not meet on Tuesday, the Democratic governor from Chicago is counting on revenue from a Chicago mega-casino to help fund his $45 billion capital projects plan. Besides introducing six new casinos, sports betting and racetrack casinos, the new gambling expansion measure — part of Pritzker’s capital plan — increased the number of video gaming terminals allowed in each establishment from five to six.

Lightfoot also met privately with Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan — but the Chicago casino was not discussed. Madigan has recused himself from all gaming legislation.

While Lightfoot had no luck making her pitch on the casino bill to lawmakers last year, Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, said speaking to a caucus “representing the state from top to bottom makes a big difference.”

“It was great to have Mayor Lightfoot in front of our caucus today,” Harmon said. “She made a compelling case for why it’s important for the whole state that we clean up the gaming bill.”

Contributing: Neal Earley