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Thursday, December 12

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Chicago needs a casino like a fish needs a bicycle. Assuming, of course, that a bicycle would provide a fish with a fresh and stable source of revenue badly needed at a time of fiscal uncertainty. A municipally-owned and operated casino would certainly be a cash cow, especially if located downtown where it would be most readily accessible by tourists, conventioneers, and whales from downtown condos. If that's who would bet there. Is that who would bet there?

Opposition to the casino comes from many quarters. Religious groups decry casino gambling as a social parasite that hurts families and encourages addiction and self-destruction. Community groups point to the fact that most of the clients will come from poor neighborhoods, folks blowing any disposable cash at the slots, thereby unfairly taxing the low-income—and they're willing to bet that the revenue generated wouldn't be spent in those neighborhoods. Fiscal conservatives and budget hawks argue that fiscal discipline is what is needed, not new revenue streams to be mishandled and misspent. In other words, to quote an ex-President, there is nothing wrong with Chicago's budget that can't be cured by what is right with Chicago. Chicago's legions of urban aesthetes are catching vapors at the idea that Chicago would follow the lead of a town like Detroit.

According to a recent study by the Social Systems Research Institute, the casinos in Detroit disproportionately negatively affected low-income families, especially African-Americans. The study also found that seven percent of Detroiters said the casino had a direct negative impact on their family. In Chicago and its metropolitan area, that seven percent figure would be dramatic. Thirty percent of respondents said the casinos had a detrimental effect on their communities; and one-third of all respondents said they knew somebody in Detroit who was a compulsive gambler. In a city of three million and a metropolitan area three times that size, those are some serious numbers.

On the other hand, a downtown casino, if properly run, would help boost Chicago's flagging convention business, generate buzz of Chicago as a tourist destination, and stem the tide of suburban gamblers going to Indiana and the west suburban riverboats to lay bets. Or so the argument goes.

The problem with that is, of course, that currently casinos are planned for the south suburbs, the north suburbs, and possibly Rosemont—which means the suburban gamblers are staying put in the suburbs. What's more, if conventioneers want to bet, why wouldn't they just go to Vegas? Why the hell waste your time on a town with a "strip" of one joint when you can go somewhere warm that's got hundreds? So that isn't very rational. Sure, the tourists and conventioneers who are coming here anyway would be prompted to spend a little more coin—but would that justify all of the money being pulled out of poor and low-income neighborhoods by folks trying to hit it big?

Republicans, naturally, oppose city ownership of the casino for "philosophical" reasons. They're Republicans. Allowing government to, functionally, compete with private enterprise in this industry is kind of the antithesis of what it means to be a Republican. However, with the social risks that come with legalized gambling, one would hope that the city's take would be enough to counter-balance the ills caused. Mayor Daley, as usual, put it best: "Why should I give the profits to somebody else? That's what I want to know."

With the 2006 primary season coming up and the Governor trying to cement an easy reelection bid, the "gambling issue" has the potential to be a huge pain. It is therefore to the advantage of the Republicans and certain Democrats to keep it in limbo for as long as possible, and force the Governor's staff to perform dizzying feats of evasion trying to get around the issue until it becomes a campaign issue. This could be especially dangerous during the Democratic primaries, since the Republican candidates will have a an easy anti-city ownership position. The Governor wouldn't want to lose the backing of the Chicago delegation to the state legislature, but at the same time he cannot afford to lose any more support outstate, where opposition to the city-owned casino is even higher and any concession to the Fifth Floor are viewed as weaknesses.

All of these questions may be academic, anyway. The Mayor cannot go ahead with his city casino plan unless he is given permission by the state legislature and the governor. Unfortunately for him, the governor feels he cannot go back on a campaign promise not to expand gambling—not counting, of course, the dozens of handouts given to the powerful horse-racing lobby every session—and the state legislature doesn't want to be saddled with the responsibility for putting a casino in downtown Chicago. So, rightfully, House Speaker Michael Madigan is refusing to bring the casino package (which includes other casinos and another house-racing subsidy) onto the floor of the House until the governor comes public about his position. This way he forces the Mayor and the Governor to publicly come together, and puts the governor in the unfortunate position of owning his opinion. The Mayor is also using his considerable weight in the state legislature to make sure that any gambling omnibus comes out on his terms—with a city-owned casino.

It isn't surprising that nobody really wants to come front and center about this thing. The Mayor, of course, has nearly unlimited political capital and nothing to lose. But the casino would be the first of its kind—because the license would be held by the City of Chicago, and therefore the casino would be a public body, one functionally operated by a regulatory board appointed by the City of Chicago.

Generally speaking, Chicago does not have a very good record with self-appointed regulatory bodies.

There is a high probability that, even if it doesn't end up being a running sore on the city's social fabric, there will myriad and serious scandals surrounding any municipally-owned casino. No politician wants to be known as the person responsible for inviting that into already scandal-plagued Illinois—no matter how much money that would give them to play with. So even gambling expansion's biggest proponents, such as Senate President Emil Jones and State Senator Denny Jacobs (D-Moline) want to make sure that if Illinois enters this land of hazard, everybody links arms and makes the plunge together.

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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