Chicago mayor pleads case in Springfield on casino, budget

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot talks to reporters after meeting with House Democrats for an hour at the state Capitol, Tuesday Nov. 12, 2019.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot crisscrossed the state Capitol Tuesday looking for help from lawmakers to make a casino feasible and shore up the city's budget, but she reported little progress.

The Legislature approved a land-based casino for Chicago last spring in a major expansion of gambling. But a feasibility study conducted by a Las Vegas consultant and released in August found that the state's "onerous tax and fee structure" all but guaranteed there'd be no return for an investor. The study by Union Gaming Analytics determined an operator could count on only about 1% profit at best while other Illinois casinos hit 20%.

Lightfoot is seeking a change in the tax structure. After leaving an hour-long meeting with House Democrats, the mayor told reporters that negotiations are ongoing and that proposed legislative language would be finished "shortly." She didn't indicate whether that meant before Thursday's adjournment of the fall legislative session.

"The plan is to keep talking to both the governor and his team the legislative leaders and their team ...," Lightfoot said. "We'll continue working to make sure that we generate the votes that are necessary to get that over the threshold."

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The law poses an effective tax rate of 72% on the Chicago operation, the study found. With operating expenses from utilities to advertising eating up 30% of revenue, costs could exceed revenue even though the Chicago site would likely be the state's highest-grossing.

A spokeswoman for the governor did not respond to a request for comment.

The Chicago casino was part of massive gambling expansion last summer. Casinos also were approved for the city's north and south suburbs, Rockford, Danville and Williamson County in southern Illinois, along with adding gambling positions at the state's existing 10 casinos and introducing them at horse racing tracks. Tax revenue is intended to help finance Gov. J.B. Pritzker's $45 billion statewide construction plan.

Lightfoot also said she hasn't given up hope for legislative approval of her plan to increase the tax on high-end real estate transfers to plug a $838 million gap in the city's budget. Lightfoot said she wants to avoid increasing city property taxes.

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