hicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s drive to revive plans for the proposed Chicago casino by restructuring the tax load on the gambling center came up short Thursday as the Illinois General Assembly adjourned until next year without voting on the measure.
Despite Lightfoot’s daytrip to the Capitol on Tuesday and long hours negotiating throughout the week, she couldn’t round up enough support among Democrats to bring a proposal to the House floor for a vote before the end of the legislature’s six-day fall veto session. Lightfoot wanted changes after a consultant this summer described the tax structure as “very onerous” and said it would make the project financially infeasible.
Instead, lawmakers passed a separate gambling fix bill that beefs up background checks on applicants for casino and sports wagering licenses, clearing the way for the gaming board to move ahead with sports betting in Illinois. The legislative hiccup represents the latest delay to create a Chicago gambling venue, while the five other municipalities granted new casinos under the legislation signed in June have already submitted developers’ applications to the Illinois Gaming Board.
“We had a short window here and a lot of moving parts,” said state Rep. Bob Rita of Blue Island, the House Democrats’ lead negotiator on gambling issues, as reported by Chicago Tribune. In the end, there wasn’t enough time to address what Rita called “outlying, underlying issues.”
Among those issues were objections from suburban Democrats, including concerns that a Chicago casino on the South Side could detract from a newly authorized south suburban casino and questions about the lack of gambling revenue flowing directly to communities in DuPage County.
“While we are disappointed that a much-needed fix to the gaming bill won’t be made during this compressed veto session, the Chicago casino is still very much in the sightline thanks to the progress we’ve made with our state partners,” Lightfoot said in a statement.
Although the city wasn’t counting on any casino revenue for next year’s budget, financial challenges for the city remain in 2021 and beyond, Lightfoot said. The city’s share of revenue from the casino would be dedicated to its underfunded police and firefighter pensions.
“After 30 years of only being talked about, our proposal has moved Chicago closer than ever to bringing much-needed relief for our police and fire pension funds, while unlocking significant economic opportunity for our communities and capital funding for our entire state," she said.
There is another avenue ahead of the January session. As some mayoral critics have urged, the city could put the Chicago casino license out for bid anyway and see if anyone comes to the table. But Lightfoot has said all along she knew the tax structure wouldn’t work. She signed off this week on a compromise from Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and Rita which would have thrown out the original 72% effective tax rate on the casino, while also giving the developer more time to pay back a hefty “reconciliation fee.”
The House and Senate both passed a bill that made a few small changes to the massive gambling expansion bill approved in the spring and later signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, including requiring applicants seeking to open casino-style gambling at horse tracks to be fingerprinted. The measure was important to ensuring a smooth rollout of the other components of the gambling expansion, Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said in a statement, “but work remains to make sure the Chicago casino opens.” “The governor is committed to continuing to work with the city and other stakeholders to finalize this important element,” Abudayyeh said.
Rita introduced a proposal Thursday that would do away with the 33.3% city tax on post-payout revenue lawmakers approved this summer in favor of graduated tax rates on slot machines and table games. That tax income would be divided between the state and city, with the state getting the larger share.
Senate Republicans criticized a similar proposal Senate President John Cullerton introduced earlier in the Senate because it would reduce the amount of money the state receives from the Chicago casino. That money would be dedicated to building projects around the state through Pritzker’s $45 billion “Rebuild Illinois” infrastructure plan.
Still, Republicans said they were willing to work with Lightfoot if she reaches out to them. “The city of Chicago has not approached me once — not a phone call, not an email, not a meeting — to talk about the Chicago casino,” said Rep. Tim Butler of Springfield, the House GOP’s lead gambling negotiator. "I think what you’ve heard our folks say is, ‘We’re willing to help.’ We want a Chicago casino.”