No Dice: Veto Session Ends Without Chicago Casino Fix

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot failed to beat the odds in Springfield, with legislators on Thursday adjourning for the year without taking up a fix she says is needed before the city can move forward with a casino.

“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. “I look forward to continuing our conversations about advancing the casino starting in January. With so much potential on the line, our city and state deserve to get this done and get this done right.”

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According to independent analysts hired to study the feasibility of a Chicago casino in various locations, the tax structure set up in the gambling expansion law state lawmakers approved in the spring would be so costly, no company would want to work with the city to open a casino.

Momentum had been building Thursday for a potential fix, with state Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, introducing a measure (Senate Bill 516, House Amendments 3 and 4) that would lessen the Chicago casino’s tax burden while also giving some relief to the five other new casinos coming to Illinois.

Lightfoot traveled to Springfield on Tuesday to lobby legislators, and Rita told WTTW News midday Thursday that his plan was to call the “bare-bones” measure.

That never happened.

Sources involved in negotiations say the city was unable to secure enough votes.

“I was identified as the point person for the House Republican caucus a year and a half ago on gaming issues. And throughout this whole thing, since the spring session, 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, R-Springfield.

Chicago lawmakers chided legislators from outside the city for “regionalism” keeping them from supporting a deal to help the city.

The city’s cut of revenue from a Chicago casino would go into underfunded police and firefighter pension funds, though Lightfoot is not counting on any of that money for next year’s budget.

“While this delay does not impact the City’s FY 2020 budget, this fiscal challenge looms large for FY 2021 and thereafter. Thus, the heightened sense of urgency remains. A substantial percentage of the state’s vertical capital bill depends on the revenue from a Chicago casino,” she said in a statement.

The state is set to get a cut, too – upwards of $200 million annually under his plan, Rita said – that has already been counted on as part of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s oft-touted Rebuild Illinois infrastructure program.

“The Chicago members took the vote that didn’t help our police and fire on the promise that they would be made whole later. We took a leap of faith,” Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, said during a floor debate.

Cassidy noted that she and other Chicago lawmakers had earlier in the day taken votes that would help prop up public safety pension funds for municipalities outside Chicago.

The measure, Senate Bill 1300, folds nearly 650 downstate and suburban pension funds into two, with a goal of cutting costs and increasing returns on investments.

Pritzker called a press conference to celebrate the move, saying the General Assembly “has achieved what none of their peers” had previously been able to do by consolidating the “jungle” of pension funds.

“We’ve begun to show that Illinois can tackle its most intractable problems,” Pritzker said. “Your local property taxes are significantly being affected and raised in many cases because you’ve got to deal with local fire and police pensions to make sure that you’re bringing them up to appropriate funding status. What we’ve done here is to allow the markets to help fund these funds,” Pritzker said.

Lawmakers also on Thursday hurried to send the governor a pair of measures intended to show they were taking action in the face of an ever-widening federal corruption probe.

One (House Joint Resolution 93) creates a commission that will give recommendations on ethics laws the state should pass; the other (Senate Bill 1639) requires increased disclosures from lobbyists when they contract with other lobbyists, and creates a state database that links lobbyists’ disclosures, lobbyists’ campaign contributions and elected officials’ economic interest statements. A provision that would have required lawmakers to share more details on their often vague economic disclosure forms was removed from the bill.

“This is just a first step. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good first step,” Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, said.

Republicans by and large voted in favor of the measures, but they complain that the ethics commission will have a partisan imbalance, and that the General Assembly should act immediately to do more by banning lawmakers from working as lobbyists and giving more authority to the legislative inspector general.

“The world that we’re existing in in Illinois, when this building is burning down, we’re going to punt this section over to a group of – we don’t know who they are. It’ll be a commission. I’ve seen commissions come and go over the years and many of us look at those commissions with jaundiced eyes,” House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said.

The General Assembly is scheduled to resume for a new session on Jan. 28.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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