Pushing anew to finally expand Illinois gambling, state Rep. Robert Rita figured staging his first public hearing in East St. Louis -- home to a casino and a horse track nearby -- would elicit feedback that would make his measure more inclusive and transparent.
In a packed conference hall at the Casino Queen on Tuesday night, the Democrat from the Chicago suburb of Blue Island got plenty of different opinions and a hometown taste of the debate that perhaps awaits during similar upcoming forums in his quest to revive expansion efforts Gov. Pat Quinn twice has scuttled.
Overseers of the Casino Queen and the city of East St. Louis made clear quickly they want none of it.
Jeff Watson, president and general manager of the Casino Queen, implored Rita to rethink his proposal to add slot machines at Fairmount Park racetrack -- just down the road in Collinsville. Rita told The Associated Press his measure would be similar to one that fizzled last May, calling for five new casinos as well as slot machines at Chicago's two international airports.
But Watson said his region's gambling market is saturated -- with two casinos in Illinois and four in neighboring Missouri near St. Louis, each cannibalizing the other. And Illinois' entry into video gaming combined with a tight regional economy hasn't helped, costing his market $76 million last year, Watson said.
"I want to be very clear: We are not in favor of any expansion that is going to dramatically affect our business," Watson said. In a state wallowing in red ink, "Despite popular opinion, gaming is not a cure-all," he added.
To East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks Jr., anything that could negatively affect the Casino Queen or its nearly 700 employees -- more than half of them minorities -- could dearly cost his long-impoverished, predominantly black city of 26,000.
Local tax revenue from the gambling hall -- the biggest local private employer -- accounts for 42 percent of the city's general fund that pays for police and fire protection along with public works.
"Without the Casino Queen, just from an operational standpoint, we don't know what the city of East St. Louis would do, quite frankly," Parks said.
Gordon Bush, East St. Louis' former mayor, called the local casino a godsend when it arrived in the early 1990s as the city teetered at bankruptcy's brink. East St. Louis police cars that weren't disabled didn't have gas, and there was no trash pickup. City workers often didn't get paid.
Now, Bush said, city revenues from the casino have helped stabilize East St. Louis, which has balanced its budget 10 years in a row. Adding more competition that squeezes the casino's $23 million payroll would be a tempest, he said.
"If you want to see East St. Louis fall back and become a ward of the state, this is what will happen," he said.
Fairmount Park representatives countered that gambling expansion is vital to its survival, noting neighboring states that have allowed slots at racetracks have siphoned away would-be gamblers from Illinois. Track operators in those states consequently have upped their prize payouts to jockeys and horse owners substantially above what can be offered in Illinois, where attendance has dwindled and race seasons have shrunk.
"We're just really looking to survive," said Brian Zander, the track's president and general manager.
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who twice has vetoed gambling-expansion bills, has said he would support a plan with proper ethical protections and money for schools, provided lawmakers sent him a pension overhaul first. Quinn late last year signed a measure aimed at eliminating that worst-in-the-nation pension shortfall, though a coalition of labor unions Tuesday joined various retirees in suing to have the law thrown out as unconstitutional.
With plans to hold "a couple more" public hearings in Illinois on his gambling expansion efforts, Rita said he prizes the input.
"We wanted to hear from locals. We've been hearing from the industry," Rita said.