The bill legalizing video poker in Illinois, described by detractors as the “crack cocaine of gaming” because of its addictive quality, emerged from the bowels of the state Capitol in Springfield three-and-a-half years ago as a legislative loser.
It carried the stench of a backroom deal cut in the dark of night by political insiders who ignored blatant conflicts of interest to muscle it through the General Assembly without careful consideration of the consequences.
But video poker’s had a makeover since then—been through rehab and behavior modification—so its actual debut this week, in 65 locations around the state, felt more like the rollout of a new video game than the yawning of the Gates of Hell.
The moral of the story, and it’s an important one, is that government—even in dysfunctional Illinois–can turn chicken s—t into chicken salad when honest public servants care more about protecting the public than rewarding the rogues.
Illinois initially approved 45,000 video poker machines for bars, veterans’ halls and truck stops. The anticipated revenue, several hundred million dollars a year, was earmarked for infrastructure upgrades–roads, bridges, public buildings and transit lines.
But the hasty enactment of a gargantuan gambling expansion failed to consider legitimate concerns raised by the BGA and other watchdog groups about the Illinois Gaming Board’s woeful lack of resources to adequately vet license applicants for mob ties, criminal backgrounds and financial stability.
So gaming board chairman Aaron Jaffe, a former judge and, more importantly, a righteous regulator, hit the “tilt” button by proclaiming that no license would be awarded until the board had enough investigative firepower to get the vetting right.
As a result, the rigorous background checks, financial assessments and technical safeguards that produced the first licensees took more than three years, which turns out to be one of the best delays in regulatory history.
The board is just as methodically making its way through 2,600 additional applications, and that’s reassuring.
Local governments also put on their own brakes in response to the outcry over the bill’s illegitimate birth and video poker’s insidious side effects.
More than 300 communities either voted to outlaw video poker or discovered existing prohibitions, and 525 are still deliberating.
Chicago is the biggest municipality with a ban on the books, and Mayor Emanuel’s shown no inclination to challenge it, opting to put his gaming energy into a Chicago casino.
As for the early revenue estimates, they’ll be revised downward, even though the funding formula remains the same: The state gets 25 percent of the net income, local governments 5 percent, machine operators just under 1 percent, and gaming establishments the rest.
So we won’t be able to build as many roads and bridges as originally envisioned. But we won’t have as many broken families and bankrupt individuals as originally feared. And these gaming revenues will stay in Illinois.
Video poker was a bad bet in `09. But today, thanks to a deck that’s been reshuffled and re-cut by honest dealers led by Aaron Jaffe, the odds are even that it can be fun for some players, profitable for some governments and, we hope, ruinous for fewer gaming addicts.
That’s a bet we’ll grudgingly take.
Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 386-9097.