A massive expansion of casino gambling in Illinois — a decade-long but futile legislative pursuit — was back with a boost Monday as a Democratic lawmaker took steps to make it part of a popular plan to legalize sports betting.
Rep. Robert Rita's measure would allow construction of six additional casinos and added gambling seats at existing sites. The Blue Island Democrat said tacking it onto the sports wagering measure would neutralize the web of criticism that has hamstrung the expansion plan.
Rep. Mike Zalewski, a Riverside Democrat, has been pursuing legalized sports wagering since last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened the door for Illinois and other states by ending a Nevada monopoly.
"Sports betting is a component that everybody is looking for," Rita said after the Executive Committee OK'd technical action allowing Rita to proceed. "The existing casinos are looking for the sports betting. ... It's the common denominator that could bring it all together."
Advocates say the time is ripe, too. They say the $350 million annual tax revenue from an expansion plan is necessary as additional financing for Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker's $41.5 billion state construction plan , which Pritzker wants approved by Friday, the scheduled adjournment of the General Assembly's spring session.
Rita's plan has yet to be written into a legislative proposal, but he said it would look similar to past ideas by adding a land-based casino in Chicago and as many as five riverboat casinos: one in Lake County north of the city, another at a site in Chicago's south suburbs, and then one each in Rockford, Danville and Williamson County, all in southern Illinois. The proposal would also add seats for gambling, including table games at horse racing tracks and the creation of sweepstakes wagering.
Past debate has focused on the size and scope of such an expansion, the political and moral resistance to gambling, and which groups would benefit or be left out of construction jobs and gambling revenue. Such proposals have also faced protest from the once-mighty horse racing industry, which was decimated over the past three decades by casino wagering.
Rita resurrected the idea a year ago during the final week of the Legislature's spring session, but it went nowhere. The checkered history of expanding gambling also played a part in the Senate's 2017 failed "Grand Bargain" plan to break a two-year budget deadlock between Democrats and Republicans. That fight left state finances in tatters.
Efforts to expand casino gambling originated nearly a decade ago, with the idea for a Chicago casino. The plan was pushed hard by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who left office this month after two terms without a casino groundbreaking. That original plan won legislative approval in May 2011, but Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, used a parliamentary procedure to delay sending the plan to then-Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, who vetoed it after deeming it "top heavy" and a "pile of garbage."
Illinois law currently sanctions ten riverboat casino licenses. There are casinos in Alton, East Peoria, Rock Island, two in Joliet, Metropolis, Aurora, East St. Louis, Elgin and Des Plaines.