Gambling expansion forum generates little compromise
EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. -- A state lawmaker hoping compromise will propel his push to expand Illinois gambling got little showing of it during a public hearing Tuesday, when a casino and the notoriously poor city it benefits argued against the plan a nearby struggling racetrack desperately wants passed.
State Rep. Robert Rita, a Democrat from South suburban Blue Island, hosted the forum at East St. Louis' Casino Queen to collect regional feedback, hoping he can bridge divides with an inclusive bill that last May fizzled in the state's General Assembly.
Administrators of the Casino Queen and East St. Louis made clear quickly they want none of it.
Before a standing-room-only crowd of some 250 people in a casino conference hall, Casino Queen's president and general manager, Jeff Watson, implored Rita to rethink his proposal that the nearby Fairmount Park racetrack hopes lets them have slot machines.
Watson called the region's gambling market already saturated with six casinos -- two in Illinois and four others in neighboring Missouri near St. Louis, with each cannibalizing the other. Illinois' allowing video gaming and U.S. economic jitters haven't helped, costing the region's gambling 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 deficit-running state craving additional revenue, "despite popular opinion gaming is not a cure-all."
To East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks Jr., any legislative action that would harm Casino Queen or its nearly 700 employees could cost his long-impoverished, 26,000-resident city dearly. Local tax revenue from the gambling hall -- the biggest private employer -- accounts for 42 percent of the city's general fund that pays for police and fire protection along with public works.
"We don't need anything that diminishes the revenues produced by the Casino Queen," Parks told Rita -- a sentiment shared by a litany of local city officials who testified, each drawing applause.
Fairmount Park representatives countered that gambling expansion -- namely hopes for additional slot machines -- is vital to its survival, noting that 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 race seasons have shrunk.
"We're just really looking to survive," said Brian Zander, Fairmount's president and general manager.
Tuesday night's public hearing was the first of a few Rita plans to hold in fine-tuning his legislation.
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.
But Rita figures Springfield's political climate may be more favorable now to getting a gambling deal into law, given that Quinn late last year signed a measure aimed at eliminating the state's worst-in-the-nation pension shortfall he had demanded the Democrat-controlled Legislature address. A coalition of labor unions on Tuesday joined various retirees in suing to have the law thrown out as unconstitutional.