Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Monday October 14th, 2013, 5:21pm

24-Hour Casinos A Bad Deal For Illinois, Gambling Critics Say

Anti-gambling groups and opponents of around-the-clock casinos are urging the Illinois Gaming Board to reject a proposal that would allow the state's 10 casinos to operate nonstop, seven days a week. 

The gaming regulatory board heard arguments last month about the push to extend the current 22-hour operating limit for state casinos to 24 hours. As part of the proposal, backed by the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, casinos would decided on an individual basis whether to operate continuously.

Supporters say the two extra hours would help boost revenue and allow casinos to better compete with video gambling and slot machines at truck stops and bars as well as 24-hour gambling houses in nearby states like Indiana and Wisconsin.

But opponents say they are concerned that people with gambling problems will stay way past the 24 hours.

"We know that there are those horror stories where people sit more than 24 hours and gamble, and that’s not discretionary money, those are the problem gamblers," said Jeanie Lowe, director of governmental affairs with the Illinois Church Action on Alcohol & Addiction Problems, an anti-gambling organization. "They usually are the ones who have to be asked to leave when (casinos) close for those two hours, [and] maybe that’s the only time they go home or they get away from the machines."

Anita Pindiur, clinical director of The Way Back Inn, a suburban Chicago drug abuse and addiction center, said problem gambling affects about 3 percent to 5 percent of the nation's population.

"When there is a problem gambler in the family, he or she (is) affected by this disease, but so is the family economically [and] emotionally," said Pindiur, a member of the Illinois Council on Problem Gambling. 

Pindiur, who said she does not take a position on gaming-related laws or proposals, said she's less concerned about 24-hour casinos and more focused on making sure that help and treatment is available to those who need it.

"If a problem gambler can gamble 22 or 24 hours, it doesn't really make that much of a difference," she explained. "What makes a difference is: is there help? Is it available? And can they access it?"

The Illinois Casino Gaming Association, which represents the 10 casinos, says it has helped with various gambling-addiction efforts, such as working to set up a hotline for addicts as well as a program where people can voluntarily bar themselves from casinos.

Pindiur acknowledged that casinos have taken important steps to address gambling addiction, but she said they could be doing more, especially if the facilities are allowed to operate around the clock.

"If they want to be open 24 hours, great. But if they notice that somebody is there for 24 hours, there's probably some other underlying issue, and perhaps [casino officials] being able and willing to say, 'What is this issue? What do we need to do? Maybe we can do some outreach for this person.'"

Gambling addition can take a toll of families, but it's also a drain on communities, Lowe added. That's because people with gambling problems often spend a good chunk of their money on gaming and fewer dollars on basic necessities and other forms of entertainment, like going to the movies or out for dinner.

Overall, 24-hour casinos are a bad bet for Illinois' economy, said prominent gambling critic John Kindt, emeritus professor of business and legal policy at the University of Illinois. Kindt called slot machines "job killers."

“Every slot machine takes at least one job out of the consumer economy because people aren’t buying cars, refrigerators and the other necessities of life," Kindt said in a statement. "They’re gambling all that money away. Staying open all day and all night year-round just intensifies this problem.”

Slot machine owners and operators in Illinois each take home 35 percent of a gaming device's gross revenue, and 30 percent is set aside for the state to share with the municipality housing the casino, Kindt noted. That means the state makes $30,000 for every $100,000 a slot machine collects.

“For the state to keep siphoning 35 percent to owners of the machines and then another 35 percent for the operators – the truck stops, the bars – makes it a total giveaway of taxpayer dollars to special interests who are destroying the state’s economy by reducing our overall tax revenues, creating huge new social problems and killing our jobs,” he stressed.

Jane Ramsey, former executive director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and current president of Just Ventures, said casinos already prey on the most vulnerable people, including low-income seniors and families. Ramsey, a member of the Task Force To Oppose Casino Gambling in Chicago, said she's worried that 24-hour casinos would mean more economically-insecure people being drawn to the gaming facilities to spend their already limited resources.

"(Casinos) will get more dollars, but those are not public-good dollars. Those are dollars that are going to private pockets," she said. "Our concern is from a public policy standpoint. The casinos do not benefit the state of Illinois, and they are not benefiting our services."

According to the gaming association, Illinois' nine casinos, not including the new River Casino in Des Plaines, saw revenues drop 38 percent since 2007, which ultimately means a decline in revenue for the state and local communities. The nine casinos also lost a total of 2,000 workers since that time.

The association maintains that 24-hour casinos would provide the state with $5 million in additional revenue each year.

But Lowe said extending casino hours to help level the playing field with gaming devices elsewhere is a "very weak" and "thinly-veiled" argument.

"Because one state does one thing that they shouldn’t do doesn’t mean that Illinois should follow suit and do the same thing," she said, referring to other states that permit 24-hour casinos.

In response to the issue of gaming devices at truck stops and bars, Kindt argued that those gambling services should be scaled back to more reasonable hours.

“Instead of expanding gambling, we need to start restricting it," he said. "A good first step would be rejecting this push to keep casinos open 24/7, and then move on to curbing these obvious abuses at bars and truck stops.”

The gaming board may make a decision regarding the extended casino hours later this month at its October meeting. Board members have already taken up the issue three times since 1990, but they shot it down each time.

"We're just praying that the gambling board will stay strong and continue to be a strong regulator and not a cheerleader for (casinos)," Lowe said. "(Gamblers) just need to be told, 'You need to go home. It's time to stop.' They need that break. We don’t see that as a lot to ask."

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