Metro-East News

Pritzker, others consider gambling expansion to boost state finances, balance budget

A long-sought gaming expansion has again been called for by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, leaving questions about what it could look like, and bringing up concerns of decreasing casino revenues.

Getting a gaming expansion would require finding enough support, while not upsetting those areas that already see benefits from casinos, which have been seeing shrinking revenues.

Previous efforts, including one last year, failed. Last year’s bill included allowing for six new casinos and allowing horse tracks to have slot machines, among other things, which raised fears of cannibalization among gaming businesses.

If a gambling expansion did occur, it may need support from metro-east legislators, several of whom would not want to see existing gambling establishments in their own districts hurt.

State Sen. Rachelle Aud Crowe, D-Glen Carbon, whose senate district includes both Fairmount Race Track in Fairmount City and the Argosy Casino in Alton, said she’s not opposed to the idea of expanded gambling.

“I do want to be mindful to the fact that we’ve got two economic drivers in our region, we’ve got Fairmount Park and the Argosy Casino, and I think we’ve got to be careful of ... not making any decisions that benefit one part of our region to the detriment of the other part of our region,” Crowe said.

State Rep. LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis, wants to make sure the Casino Queen in East St. Louis is protected because that casino generates a large chunk of city revenues.

“The Casino Queen makes up roughly half of the city’s revenue, so anything to impact that negatively would be detrimental to the city of East St. Louis, unless we can come up with other revenue sources,” Greenwood said.

“I’m not unopposed to any expansion, as long as it does not directly impact the metro east area, negatively,” Greenwood added. “As with all issues, … it will take us time to thoroughly vet the issues, listen to both sides, so to make a confirmation, like a yes or no, right now, you really can’t do it with all the information associated with it.”

Gambling expansion seen as much-needed new revenue

Pritzker has said he thinks a gaming expansion can be used to help balance the state’s budget and help pay for a capital infrastructure bill.

“There are areas in the state that don’t have any casinos on our side of the border where we could put a casino, or provide an opportunity to put a casino that would keep the dollars from going across the state line to other places. That’s one example of where we could enhance revenue to the state and enhance the gaming revenue to the state and enhance the gaming revenue that is being expended,” Pritzker said in an interview with the BND prior to his inauguration.

He gave possible examples of Rockford or Chicago, where Chicago Mayor Rahm Emannual had called for a casino.

One aspect that has probably contributed to the decrease in casino revenue is the growth in video gaming terminals around the state.

Money generated from the video gaming terminals has increased over the years as there are nearly 30,700 terminals around the state in more than 6,700 bars, restaurants, gaming parlors, fraternal organizations and truck stops.

However, a ProPublica report found that video gaming terminals, which were legalized in order to help pay for the Illinois Jobs Now! capital plan under former Gov. Patrick Quinn, a Democrat, did not bring in the revenue that was expected. The terminals are not taxed at the same percentage as casinos.

“I want to make sure we’re looking at the entire arena of casino gambling, of video gaming, of sports betting, which we can bring to the state of Illinois. To determine how we can expand the dollars that we have for the state of Illinois, not to mention the dollars we have going into our industry here, so we can create jobs,” Pritzker said. “I realize that there has been cannibalization in certain areas of the state, and that’s resulted in lower-than-expected revenue, but the fact is, if we’re strategic and if we study it properly and make sure we’re putting our gaming resources in the right place, I believe we can expand gaming revenue.”

If there is gaming expansion, one industry that hopes to be included is the horse racing industry, which includes Fairmount Park.

“With more than $1 billion in contributions to the agribusiness economy of our state, horse racing must be included in any conversations about gaming,” said Tony Somone, executive director of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association (IHHA). “Ours is the only segment of the gaming industry that has significant room to grow and provide real and sustainable jobs in agriculture.”

Slot machines at horse racing tracks was included in a bill that failed to pass last year in the Illinois Legislature.

Horse racing also helps employ veterinarians, people who sell hay, among other people.

Fairmount Park has been asking for another revenue source, such as video gaming terminals, to help the facility have larger purses to attract more horsemen to race their horses at the park.

“It is true that horse racing is struggling in Illinois because of casinos, but we know that with additional gaming assistance, other states have seen their horse racing industry rebound to previous heights of employment and business,” said Marty Engel, president of the IHHA. “We earnestly hope that Gov. Pritzker sees fit to include horse racing in any gaming legislation that emerges in the months ahead. We are one segment of gaming that will more than pay its way through the creation of new and sustainable jobs throughout our economy.”

State Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, said any gaming expansion deal would need to include Fairmount Park because the park has been losing horses as horse owners race their horses in other states.

“I can tell you, if we’re not doing something with Fairmount, then I’m not going to be for a Chicago casino,” Meier said. “I’ve got to have Fairmount in there, got to see where this money is being allocated to.”

However whatever additional revenue that comes in from gaming shouldn’t go to new spending, Meier said.

“I don’t believe we should be creating any new programs until we go out and pay our bills, and we’re way behind on paying our bills,” Meier said.

Deep Southern Illinois wants casino for resort project

State Sen. Paul Schimpf, R-Waterloo, who represents areas south of the metro-east, but whose district includes part of St. Clair County, said he would want to see more gaming at horse racetracks.

Schimpf also has pushed for a casino license for Walker’s Bluff, a vineyard in Williamson County, which would like to expand into a resort with a casino, but that also hosts concerts and other events, he said.

“One of the arguments for Walker’s Bluff, I think the Chicagoland area is saturated already, but Walker’s Bluff is something that would be in the heart of deep Southern Illinois,” Schimpf said. “I think it does have economic viability.”

The currently are several casinos in the Chicago metropolitan area, but none in the city if Chicago.

Walker’s Bluff is about a two-hour drive from East. St. Louis, and about a one-hour drive from the Harrah’s casino in Metropolis on the Kentucky border.

“That part of Southern Illinois, you start to have a little bit more of terrain features, you’ve got some hills, and it’s a beautiful area down there,” Schimpf said. “It’s got some vineyards. I think it would work from a tourism aspect.”

However, if a gaming expansion is approved, there will be the social concerns of the plan of making money off of people losing bets.

State Sen. Jason Plummer, R-Edwardsville, said he would be against an expansion in gaming.

“I think gaming in general is a tax often times on folks who can’t afford it. I have seen through personal experience through business, I have seen people lose their families, I have seen people lose their businesses, I’ve seen people lose their jobs because of gambling,” Plummer said.

“And I think the state of Illinois wants to keep pushing things I think have a negative impact on society. Whether that’s recreational marijuana, or that’s gambling, or things of that nature, because they’re so desperate for revenue and they’re unwilling to get their fiscal house in order and the answer is ‘let’s get more revenue.’”

Pritzker said the debate about whether casinos should be allowed has past.

“Now it’s a question about how do we regulate it, where do those gaming opportunities arise,” Pritzker said. “There are economic development opportunities for a lot of areas. I know metro-east has looked at it, Rockford. There are opportunities for us to keep dollars that are going across the border into other states in Illinois, and to attract dollars from other states to Illinois if we have new casinos.”

Joseph Bustos is the state affairs and politics reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, where he strives to hold elected officials accountable and provide context to decisions they make. He has won multiple awards from the Illinois Press Association for coverage of sales tax referenda.