Hold ’em or fold ’em?
Walk away or run?
That’s what country singer Kenny Rogers ponders in “The Gambler,” his iconic song about the choices we face at the gaming table and, by inference, in life.
Well pardner, it’s decision time here in Illinois as Springfield lawmakers consider a humongous gaming bill that could eventually pump several hundred million new dollars a year into the state’s depleted treasury.
Consider the magnitude of the proposed expansion: Five new casinos, including one in Chicago; slot machines at racetracks; and at O’Hare and Midway Airports.
Illinois would have 23 major gambling venues with 27,000 gaming positions, more than double the current number, along with legalized Internet betting.
And that’s on top of the 1,250 video gaming machines that went online this year.
Do I hear “Las Vegas of the Midwest” replacing “Land of Lincoln” as our motto?
The upside? Recapturing some of the gaming dollars Illinois gamblers now spend in adjacent states, and raking in new revenue from the millions of visitors who come here to work or play.
That’s the balance sheet argument: Cold cash to feed a starving state.
But on the backs of gamblers? Many consider that socially and morally bankrupt — a poster child for bad government — especially when you consider the enforcement challenges.
The mob may not control gaming any more — most of the “made” men are dead or in jail, and the big gaming companies are publicly held multinationals — but vigilance is still critical because, with so much money at stake and so many desperate gamblers involved, the vultures are always circling.
And this is Illinois, where the Gaming Board is always nervous.
They’re understaffed and justifiably concerned about a couple of troubling aspects of the new bill:
- It fast-tracks the approval process for new licenses, even if that rushes the vetting. Bad idea. Don’t clear licenses for takeoff until the safety checks are all completed.
- It creates a confusing ownership and oversight protocol for a Chicago casino. Let’s clean it up and make the Gaming Board the ultimate regulator.
The bill actually proposes replacing the current Gaming Board members — they’ve apparently been too ethical for greedy lawmakers — but that vindictive fit of pique has apparently dissipated, which is a good thing when you consider the stellar job chairman Aaron Jaffe’s done to keep Illinois gaming clean for nearly a decade.
Jaffe’s testimony at a Senate committee hearing this week was reportedly less than stellar — news accounts suggest he was poorly prepared and inconsistent — but his concerns should still be taken seriously.
His team — thank you — took three years to thoroughly vet the 2,200 video poker license applications that came in after Springfield, in a conflict-riddled inside deal, approved what’s uncharitably called the “crack cocaine of gaming.”
Now, if the current bill passes, his agency will be facing a bigger challenge with insufficient resources.
“Overwhelming” is how Jaffe describes it.
So here’s the play, lawmakers: Give Jaffe’s staff enough time, money, manpower and authority to vet applicants thoroughly, and scrub the dirt and ambiguity off the current bill, especially the Chicago casino piece.
If you can’t do that, fold ’em. And run.
Don’t join a high-stakes game that impacts our quality of life with a stacked deck.
Andy Shaw is president & CEO of the Better Government Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097