SPRINGFIELD -- Even though it wasn't even open for half the year, a strong 2011 from the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines was enough to raise the state's casino revenue for the entire year for the first time since 2007.
The Rivers Casino took in more than $177 million in receipts after opening in July, according to state gambling numbers released Monday. And the state got more than $401 million in casino taxes for the year, up from $384 million in 2010.
"We are happy to have contributed to the first year-over-year increase in gaming revenues in Illinois since 2007, and we are proud of the contribution we have made to the local economy in Des Plaines and the surrounding communities by providing more than 1,300 full-time jobs," Rivers Casino CEO Greg Carlin said in a statement.
The Des Plaines facility has been the top performer in the state per month since its opening, dethroning Elgin's Grand Victoria Casino, which had held that title consistently since it opened in 1994.
The Rivers Casino took in about $33 million in December. The Grand Victoria had almost $19 million in receipts.
That's no small sum, but the Grand Victoria saw its take drop about 10 percent from 2010 and about 41 percent since 2007, the year before a statewide indoor smoking ban took effect.
Despite the revenue slide in many of the state's casinos, the news that Illinois' tax share is up could buoy the supporters of gambling expansion, who argue that slots at Arlington Park and new casinos in Lake County, Chicago and elsewhere could provide a much-needed boost to the state's finances.
"That's the whole thing with the expansion of gambling," said state Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat.
It may seem logical that a state with 10 casinos operating would bring in more gambling taxes than a state with nine, but gambling opponents have argued that Des Plaines just steals gamblers from other Illinois casinos -- particularly the Grand Victoria.
And, they say, the industry in Illinois is already facing steep declines, and further competition could create problems.
Tom Swoik, who represents the Elgin casino and others as head of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, argues that the Rivers Casino, even with its quick start, is producing numbers far lower than the Grand Victoria did at its peak. State tax revenues, too, are down from their peak, he noted.
"They're still not anywhere near where they were," said Swoik, who has lobbied against most expansion plans in Springfield.
State officials aren't exactly banking on increased casino revenue.
Gov. Pat Quinn's budget spokeswoman Kelly Kraft said that much of the state's share of the Rivers Casino's taxes will go to help the horse racing industry. So officials don't expect a big year, tax-wise, in 2012.
"Secondly there is the novelty effect," Kraft said. "We knew that Rivers Casino would have higher revenues in the early months and reduce later in the year as the novelty of the new casino wears off."
"Casino revenues are in line with our current expectations," Kraft said.
Other Chicago-area casinos saw small drops in receipts in 2011, too. The Hollywood Casino in Aurora saw a more than 4 percent drop. Harrah's Joliet had a 9 percent decline but the Hollywood Casino in Joliet saw a 2 percent increase from 2010.
State lawmakers won't start talking in earnest about adding new casinos to Illinois' 10 existing ones until later this year.
State Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat and top expansion supporter, is among those who hope to bring up the topic in 2012.
State lawmakers begin meeting again Jan. 31, but in an election year, they might try to limit how many possibly politically harmful issues they tackle. So the path to approval of a gambling expansion plan remains an uphill one.
But supporters see hope in Monday's numbers as they try to persuade their colleagues to join them.
"My point is, we should go full speed ahead," Lang said.