Chicago Casino Bill Derailed By ‘Letters to Santa’ in Illinois Legislature

Posted on December 18, 2019

Although the state of Illinois has already adjusted the tax structure for a potential future gaming facility in the Windy City, more may be necessary to attract a developer. A Chicago casino compromise supported by Mayor Lori Lightfoot sought to address that problem.

Unfortunately for Chicago’s mayor, the measure failed. While there is hope for another push in the next legislative session, the reason that this effort failed has more to do with politics than the merits of the item.

Why the Lightfoot Chicago casino compromise failed

Lightfoot said that the vote was very close, coming down to just five short of the necessary 60. She further felt that it was due to outside interests, not whether the details of her proposal constituted solid policy.

Lightfoot explained that problems first arose when a state lawmaker was arrested in connection with offering bribes around other gambling legislation. Her efforts nearly overcame that setback, however.

The measure was further derailed by other legislators at the state level. Lightfoot says they tried to add “tinsel to the Christmas tree.”

These legislators sought to add their own amendments to Lightfoot’s bill, trying to seize an opportunity. Lightfoot continued her analogy, describing the situation as people “coming out of the woodwork with their letters to Santa.”

Because of that, the measure failed. Lightfoot is determined to try again early next year. The entire project may rest upon her success.

What Lightfoot wanted and why it could be crucial

Lightfoot’s proposal sought to accomplish three objectives:

  • Remove development costs for a potential developer
  • Increase the city’s share of revenues from the casino
  • Decrease the state’s cut of casino revenues

As expected, some state legislators rebuffed the proposal. They argued it would hurt the projects the state had in mind when they passed this year’s gambling expansion bill.

While that may be true, Lightfoot’s proposal is in keeping with moderation that has already taken place. The state has already backed off its original framework.

After the state passed its last gambling expansion law in June, it commissioned a study on the best place to place a potential future Chicago casino. That study came back with a perhaps unexpected result.

The state’s evolving position on a new Chicago casino

The study’s findings revealed the tax structure was too onerous for a Chicago casino to be profitable. Because of that, the state recently revised that structure.

The bill Lightfoot championed represented her response to that same study. Although the state has taken some action toward making the project more feasible, Lightfoot felt more was necessary.

She could be right. Even with the reconfigured tax structure, the cost to develop such a facility in Chicago is still an enormous investment for any developer.

That would lengthen the amount of time necessary to recoup the investment. One way to offset that is tax breaks.

That situation becomes difficult for the city as well if its cut of revenues isn’t large enough. Just as state lawmakers are concerned with their own districts, Lightfoot’s primary interest is Chicago.

When the state Legislature reconvenes in January, Lightfoot might be more successful. The bill’s success may depend on whether other interests in the state will allow it, however.

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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a freelance journalist who resides in Kansas City, Mo. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa and covers the intersections of sports with business and the law.

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