Proposal would give veterans groups a way around gambling bans
A Gurnee American Legion post that failed in its attempts to get local approval for video gambling has inspired a legislative bill that would let veterans organizations install gambling machines even in communities that otherwise prohibit them.
State Sen. Terry Link, a Vernon Hills Democrat, says the bill he sponsored would help financially stabilize American Legion and VFW organizations struggling to stay open amid dwindling membership. State senators approved the legislation last week with overwhelming support, 41-5.
Some suburban leaders say they want to support veterans but bristle at what they see as a potential end run around local authority.
That includes the mayor of Gurnee, where leaders organized an annual craft beer festival to help American Legion Post 771 after denying requests for video gambling several years ago.
The Legions of Craft Beer Festival has raised about $20,000 a year for the post, but veterans organizations in some other towns have raised many times that amount through gambling.
"A community should have the right to decide what uses belong in their municipal boundaries, especially something like gambling that has such a negative impact on neighborhoods and the local economy," Gurnee Mayor Kristina Kovarik said.
In Arlington Heights, the bill, if passed, could allow video gambling at veterans organizations but not at Arlington International Racecourse, which has sought expanded gambling for years. Arlington Heights, like Gurnee, prohibits video gambling.
The change would be a boon for Arlington Heights American Legion Post 208 because it would be the only establishment to offer video gambling, finance officer David Roberts said.
"You get fewer and fewer veterans coming into places like the American Legion, and we need draws to get people in to spend money and support what we do," Roberts said.
Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes, an Army veteran, said he wants to support veterans but views the legislation as an intrusion on local control.
"I'm not sure I see a valid justification to carve out that exception," Hayes said.
The Illinois Municipal League, which represents local governments across the state, and the DuPage Mayors and Managers Conference oppose the measure, too.
Neither group returned phone calls seeking comment.
Link said his Senate Bill 3166 would help veterans organizations that are "living on a shoestring budget because times are tough."
"This could help solve their problems," Link said.
Gurnee American Legion Post 771 Cmdr. Jim Huisel said the craft beer fundraiser has helped, but not enough. The Legion wants to build a new facility because its hall is in the floodplain.
The organization also wants to expand scholarship programs, services for veterans and community outreach, he said.
Huisel has watched video gambling revenues help other veteran organizations.
"It's changed their financial dynamic 180 degrees," he said.
Last year, Lake Zurich American Legion Post 964 took in $76,578 from video gambling, according to Illinois Gaming Board records. Elgin American Legion Post 57 made $46,574.
Huntley American Legion Post 673 outpaced both by raking in $116,710, which is helping it complete major facility renovations.
"I'm just trying to give a reason for the village to say yes," Huisel said. "They might still say no."
If the legislation passes, local governments still would have some control because they must approve liquor licenses that are required under state law for most facilities that operate video gambling machines.
"We still hold power over the liquor license, but what's not to stop a state legislator from taking that away from a local community?" Kovarik said.