Chicago casino in gambling expansion plan

December 2, 2010 (CHICAGO)

The casino bill would also allow racetracks to have some slot machines.

Supporters say the plan would generate $1 billion a year in new tax revenue for the state.

Gambling has always been sold in interesting ways in Illinois. Back in 1986, when the first casinos were first proposed, one state rep claimed, "This isn't a gambling bill, this is a recreation bill."

Fast forward 25 years and the dramatic expansion of gambling is now being marketed as a partial solution to the state's budget mess.

By the end of the month the Empress in Joliet will be renamed the Hollywood Casino. A new $60 million pavilion will include a sports bar, huge buffet restaurant and a high-end steakhouse.

"We're really kind of like a Vegas, only we're in Illinois," said Jon Johnson, Empress/Hollywood Casino general manager.

What the casino wiIl not include is a single new slot machine or table game. State law won't allow it, at least not yet.

But, the state Senate has passed a bill to expand existing casinos by two-thirds and add slot machines two six horse racing tracks, including three so-called "racinos" in Cook County.

It would also allow riverboat casinos to open in Danville, Rockford, a yet-to-be-determined south suburb, north suburban Park City and a land-based casino in the city of Chicago.

"It is an enormous expansion of gambling," said minority leader State Senator Christine Radogno, (R) Lemont. "There is inadequate oversight. The timeline is too short. It's too big."

"As far as magnitude of this, if you're gonna do it, let's do this so this is the final bill you and I will ever see in our lifetimes," said State Sen. Terry Link, (D) Vernon Hills.

When riverboat casinos were first allowed in Illinois in the early 90's they were sold as the salvation for struggling towns and the state.

Government watchdogs point out a law allowing video poker machines in bars approved nearly 18 months ago has yet to yield a dime.

"We have no confidence that doing the same thing we've done the last two times we've tried to expand gambling in Illinois is going to come up with a different result," said Laurence Msall, Civic Federation.

The operators of the state's nine current betting barges -- including Empress -- are protective of their territory. They say it doesn't make sense to build new casinos in a bad economy.

"We're not going to be increasing any revenues because we're not able to increase the entire pie," said Johnson. "The pie isn't going to grow and everybody's piece is just going to get smaller."

Managers at the Empress say the amount of money they kicked back to the state dropped by 20 percent two years ago when a casino smoking ban led to a decrease in gamblers. Want more money? They say let their customers smoke.

As for the expansion, the House still needs to vote. The earliest that could happen is January

Governor Quinn, though, says he has reservations about expanding gambling this much.

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