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posted: 2/12/2014 8:43 AM

Editorial: Still not time for gambling expansion

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

It looks like certain Illinois legislators are ready to roll the dice again for gambling expansion. And like any regular lottery player, they're looking to play the same numbers as before. Five new casinos and slot machines at racetracks and airports remain under consideration. It's not proven to be a winning hand in the past and we don't think it merits any further play either.

"I believe there's an opportunity to pass a bill that the governor will sign," said state Rep. Lou Lang, the assistant House majority leader and the leading gambling advocate in the legislature. "Having said that, it's a timing issue. There's an election year and gaming is a difficult issue at best."

As well it should be. And election year or not, we urge Lang and others to present a much less ambitious expansion bill.

As we have said many times, we support slot machines at Arlington International Racecourse, in particular, as a way to help the struggling and already established horse-racing industry in the state.

But any other expansion needs to be clearly vetted. Does it make sense from an economic and ethical standpoint?

It's clear to us that allowing casinos in Chicago, Lake County, the South suburbs, Rockford and Danville -- all part of the past and current proposals -- is clearly an attempt to curry favor from all corners without factoring in the effect so much expansion might have on existing casinos, especially those in the suburbs.

In addition to new casinos, recent proposals would add slot machines at O'Hare and Midway international airports and some lawmakers would even like to let current and future casino licensees apply for online gambling licenses. While the lure of overall revenue to the state is appealing -- estimated last year, without the online provision, between $250 million and $350 million a year -- the hurt is too much on existing casinos and the communities that depend on the local revenues they provide.

Des Plaines, Elgin and Aurora all would surely suffer if new casinos were built in the Chicago region. A Chicago-based casino, especially, would slice into attendance and revenue at the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, the newest Illinois casino. In January, the Illinois Gaming Board reported that Rivers, in its second year, saw a slight increase in revenue in 2013 over 2012 -- up about a half percent to $418 million. But the Grand Victoria in Elgin and Hollywood Casino in Aurora both saw declines -- 8.5 percent and 6.5 percent respectively. Clearly the newer Rivers had an effect on those casinos.

Attendance was even down at Rivers as gambling machines were made available in bars and restaurants. Given those figures, it seems clear that a saturation point is near, if it has not already been reached. Expansion should not be approved at the expense of already established gambling facilities in the suburbs.

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