Windy City proposal a high-stakes gamble

2009-09-07T00:00:00Z Windy City proposal a high-stakes gambleDan Carden - dan.carden@nwi.com, (317) 637-9078 nwitimes.com
September 07, 2009 12:00 am  • 

INDIANAPOLIS | It is a ticking time bomb. A legislative proposal awaiting action in the Illinois House of Representatives that could blow Northwest Indiana's casino industry to smithereens -- the Chicago casino.

Often talked about, frequently rumored, but never actually built, a Chicago casino is proposed as regularly as leaves falling from the trees in autumn.

But faced with an unexpected revolt by Illinois cities and counties objecting to the introduction of video gambling in bars, Illinois finally may be willing to take a bet on a casino in Chicago.

Lawmakers approved video gambling in bars, along with hikes in drivers' fees and higher taxes on alcohol, candy and soft drinks to pay for a $31 billion program to rebuild Illinois' decrepit roads, bridges and schools. Video gambling was expected to bring in the bulk of the revenue: between $300 million and $400 million a year.

However, the law allows cities and counties to opt out and ban video gambling, and, already, Country Club Hills, Rosemont and DuPage County have done just that, with many more considering a ban. That means if Illinois lawmakers actually want their constituent-pleasing construction projects to go forward, they may need to find another source of cash.

Illinois state Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan, says money from a Chicago casino could fill that gap nicely.

Tick, tick, tick.

Already approved by the Illinois Senate in May, a measure authorizing a Chicago casino could be at the top of the agenda when lawmakers return to Springfield next month.

"If the economy improves, we could get a billion or $2 billion a year out of a Chicago casino. I would say that's a lot of cash," said state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Chicago, the casino bill's sponsor in the Illinois House.

"People leave Illinois every day to gamble in other states. And by at least the hundreds, people leave Chicago every day to gamble in Indiana," Lang said.

"Why we'd allow all that revenue to go to another state is beyond me."

Tick, tick, tick.

It's practically impossible to handicap the ultimate effect of a Chicago casino on gaming in Northwest Indiana, said Ernest Yelton, executive director of the Indiana Gaming Commission.

But, as Mike Smith, president of the Indiana Casino Association trade group, points out, "A good part of our market comes out of the Chicago area into Northwest Indiana.

"Obviously, the closer to Indiana, the more potential impact it could have."

The Chicago casino proposal calls for a 4,000-position facility located either on Lake Michigan or on land. A casino that size would be slightly smaller than the Horseshoe in Hammond, which has 4,239 gaming positions.

"The Horseshoe is every bit as large as anything you'd find in Vegas," Yelton said.

Would two Vegas-sized casinos some 20 miles apart mean curtains for the four smaller boats in the region?

"Until there's something a little more concrete, I don't know that anyone can make any particularly intelligent decision about how it could affect the casinos in Indiana," Yelton said.

Indiana lawmakers aren't waiting, though. A legislative study committee has been meeting to consider possible changes to Indiana gambling laws in the face of potential new competition from Ohio and Kentucky, as well as Illinois.

Lawmakers have good reasons to want to protect gambling in Indiana.

Gambling taxes are the third-largest component of Indiana's annual state revenue, behind only sales and income taxes. Between 65 percent and 70 percent of gambling tax money comes from out-of-state players.

Casinos also are the state's fifth-largest employer. Added together, they put more than 16,000 Hoosiers to work.

Illinois lawmakers return to Springfield on Oct. 14.

Tick, tick, tick.

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