The merits of a Chicago casino have been debated for months, and last week Rahm Emanuel rattled off specific projects that the mayor says will be made possible thanks to gambling.
The merits of a Chicago casino have been debated for months, and last week Rahm Emanuel rattled off specific projects that the mayor says will be made possible thanks to gambling. Gov. Pat Quinn, though, is still on the fence about the gambling expansion bill that narrowly passed the Illinois General Assembly in May. The legislation included 14 new gaming venues in Illinois, including a taxpayer-owned casino for Chicago – the first publicly owned casino in the country.
Quinn probably has to make up his mind during the fall legislative session, which starts in October. In defense of the governor’s indecisiveness, there are no public studies that have determined if if the casino is a good idea.
To be sure, no study can perfectly predict the future about the competence and honesty of casino contractors or how many people want to play blackjack in Chicago. But for such a talked about issue, there has been alarmingly little cost-benefit analysis.
“No data exists that shows what impact this bill will have,” says Emily Miller, policy and government affairs coordinator for the Better Government Association.
Even Terry Link (D-30), a state senator from Waukegan who co-wrote the gaming bill, admits that, “Everything is a guestimate and economic times have changed since the last studies on gambling.”
The data question is particularly important because Emanuel has started to cite quantifiable benefits -- $140 million in annual revenue from a casino, $2.3 billion in casino-backed bonds toward Chicago Transit Authority and public school capital projects, and the creation of 7,000 to 10,000 jobs. “BGA had a town hall last week where Emanuel said the casino will create 7,000 to 10,000 jobs,” Miller says. “I don’t know where that number is coming from.”
Calls to the mayor’s office were not returned by press time. A broad coalition of business and labor leaders, including the Chicago Federation of Labor, say a casino will be a major jobs and economic development catalyst. Lou Lang (D-16), a state representative from Skokie and the House sponsor of the gambling bill, thinks that the $140 million figure is a very conservative estimate. Lang says that the number probably came from an internal study done by the mayor.
As for concerns about poor regulatory safeguards, Lang notes that the Illinois gaming board would monitor all private contracts done by the Chicago casino board – a claim backed this month by a Chicago News Cooperative report that combed through the 340-page bill.
Also, Lang points out that though Quinn is skeptical about the gaming bill, “He has never suggested specific parts of the bill that he wanted to change.” One possibility, Lang says, is that the General Assembly work with Quinn on a revised gambling expansion bill in the fall session.
Another issue is that no other American city has tried a publicly-owned casino. “There is a substantial benefit for the citizens of Chicago,” Lang says. “If it were owned by a corporation, the locals get a five percent share and the rest is kept by the corporation.” Miller of BGA, though, is concerned about what happens if things go wrong. “Who assumes the risk of unpaid bills?” she asked. “Is it the contractor or the taxpayer?”