The asterisk of video gambling
In the realm of "good news for Illinois," Monday's Supreme Court decision upholding the funding plan for a $31 billion capital works program has a huge asterisk -- video gambling.
Video gambling was not the primary subject of the Supreme Court case, but its endorsement is a natural byproduct of the court's ruling, and our position on this distasteful means of collecting revenue is well-established. We don't like it, and the state shouldn't either. Nor should local municipalities, and we're pleased to note that many have opted out, refusing to allow this dangerous and poorly regulated enterprise within their borders.
Nonetheless, it looks now as though video games will become a fixture in Illinois bars and VFW halls -- at least in the towns that haven't reject it. But they still leave a lot of questions, not least of which is whether they'll produce the amount of revenue the state is counting on them for.
It's also worth noting that when these capital projects are complete and the bonds supporting them are paid off, video gambling will still be with us. The state Supreme Court ruling upholding the funding sources -- which notably include higher vehicle registration fees and higher taxes on liquor, candy and soda -- said it's clear the legislature intended these funds to pay for capital projects, but do we assume that that applies in perpetuity?
The roads and bridges and schools and other projects identified in the capital bill will eventually be fixed, but video gambling will remain with us. Will the revenues it produces always be used for construction and infrastructure? Or, like so much else in Illinois, will they be absorbed into the physiology of the state's finances to become one more source of income we can no longer do without?
Although one may quibble with an individual project here or there, there's no question of the need for the construction program. But any celebration that it now can continue must be tempered with the observation that this Pyrrhic victory comes at a heavy cost to the nature and quality of life in Illinois.
We may get away with this one, but we still must come to grips with the reality that we cannot put our faith in gambling as a prop for the state's debt problems and funding needs.
Whether it be the ill-conceived casino legislation still awaiting completion or the video poker machines that mean so much to state infrastructure, we in Illinois have got to stop accepting short-term patches for our financial goals and begin developing long-term, systemic changes in the way we spend and raise money.
Until this happens, that ugly asterisk is going to cast a long shadow over the future of our financial affairs.