By Benjamin Yount | Illinois Watchdog
PLAYING WITH HOUSE MONEY: Illinois wants to use taxpayer dollars to build a new Chicago casino.
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — When you’re hungry, even a three-day-old banana and sardine sandwich looks good. And when you are as broke as Illinois, the promise of billions of dollars from a Chicago casino looks amazing.
“Macau, I believe, is the gaming capital of the world. If I’m not mistaken their revenues last year might have been upwards of $45 billion,” Illinois Democrat state Rep. Andre’ Thapedi said Wednesday. “If those numbers are accurate, that a small little Chinese territory can generate $45 billion in one year, that’s something we have to look at.”
Illinois once again looks to a potential Chicago casino as the money maker both the city and state want. On Wednesday, a panel of state lawmakers dove back into the debate over how to get as much public money out of a Chicago casino as they could.
“No matter what figure you look at — the highest has been $950 million, the lowest has been $450 million — that a downtown Chicago casino would produce. Pick a number, they’re all huge numbers,” Kim Goluska, a board member of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, told lawmakers.
Goluska said the indirect benefits of a Chicago casino — new jobs, new tourists, new conventions — would be in the billions of dollars.
Goluksa said Chicago could be like Disneyland for casino operators.
“Chicago is an incredible prize for the gaming industry,” she said.
But that prize would come with strings.
The Illinois Legislature would have to vote to allow a Chicago casino, and the city of Chicago wants to own the casino.
Goluska tried to talk up the money-making possibilities of a public-private partnership.
“Probably the best place to put a casino is (in the state owned) Thompson Center,” Goluska said.
Illinois would be the casino’s landlord and the city would be the casino’s owner, but taxpayers would be the investors.
Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association that represents Illinois’ existing casinos, said the proposed state plan would put the cost to build a new casino on the taxpayers.
“In (this plan) the state of Illinois would borrow nearly $1 billion to build a city of Chicago casino,” Swoik said, noting that’s a huge risk. “Taxpayers would finance the construction of a mega-Chicago casino.”
Illinois already has 10 riverboat casinos and thousands of local video slot machines spread across the state.
Swoik pointed out to that video gaming in local bars, veterans’ clubs and trucks stops are making the state’s bigger casinos less and less profitable.
The Illinois Gaming Board reports riverboat casino revenue is down 43 percent since 2007 and gambling receipts dropped 7 percent last year alone.
Swoik said a Chicago casino may never be the cash cow that city and state leaders hope, but the question of future dollars is not the highest hurdle for a Chicago casino.
To get the votes, Illinois lawmakers have been negotiating a casino-building boom that could add casinos in Lake County, the south suburbs, Danville and Rockford. The plan also would add slot machines at horse racing tracks across the state.
The Chicago Crime Commission voiced its opposition to gambling expansion.
“The Crime Commission cannot support a (plan) that provides state ownership and oversight of a casino,” commission Vice President Art Bilek told lawmakers. “The track record of corruption at the city and state level in Illinois is a national disgrace.”
Lawmakers are trying to get enough support for a Chicago casino in time for the budget negotiations in May. Similar attempts in past years, however, have all come up short.
Contact Benjamin Yount at Ben@IllinoisWatchdog.org and find him on Twitter @BenYount.