Push for Chicago casino could mean more slots for suburbs

If the latest push for a Chicago casino works, the suburbs are likely to end up with more slot machines, too.

State Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat and top gambling expansion supporter, said this year's near-annual attempt by lawmakers to add more games of chance in Illinois will include a casino in Lake County and slot machines for Arlington Park.

Giving Chicago a casino by itself, he said, isn't being seriously considered.

“No,” Link said. “That will not happen.”

The question of whether the whole thing happens has once again come up at the Capitol, where some lawmakers who have heard the cries of advocates for the disabled, nursing homes and numerous other causes might see the taxes generated by new gambling palaces as a budget savior.

Existing casinos, though, will once again fight the plan, arguing 19,000 video gambling machines statewide — equivalent to 17 casinos — have already cut into their revenues.

Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin has seen a drop in its take after the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines opened in 2011. And both betting houses would face stiff competition if Arlington Park installed 1,200 slot machines or Chicago opened a casino bigger than them all.

“We're not creating any new gamblers,” Tom Swoik, director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, said. “All you're doing is shifting people around.”

Some advocates argue the machines create not only new gamblers, but also problem gamblers, tempted by the wide availability of chances to feed their addictions.

State tax revenues rose after Rivers opened, and Link cautions that even if lawmakers do expand gambling, new money won't be available immediately to solve the budget problems of the spring.

Still, money is money, and the state's financial problems could serve as motivation to strike a deal. Talks are escalating now, Link said, because Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel — a big supporter of a Chicago casino — was facing a tough election.

“We had to make sure he was still the mayor,” Link said.

The effort at the Capitol to build new casinos in Chicago, Lake County and elsewhere resembles the long-hapless Chicago Cubs' bid for a World Series title.

Most years, supporters can find a reason this is the year for success — the motivation of a budget crisis, a new governor, a heavy-hitting third baseman. Pretty much every year, they fall short.

Lawmakers are supposed to wrap up their work by the end of the month, so Link says specifics of a proposal could be coming soon. The details could make or break a plan.

Gov. Bruce Rauner has remained open to the idea.

“He will carefully consider any legislation that crosses his desk and believes decisions on gambling should be done in close consultation with local communities,” spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said.

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