Survey: Lawmakers mixed on sports gambling in Illinois

Survey: Lawmakers mixed on sports gambling in Illinois

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If Lou Lang moves fast, it might be a mere matter of weeks before the Skokie state representative has a sports wagering bill ready for inspection by his fellow legislators.

And how long could it be until Illinoisans are able to walk into their friendly neighborhood tavern and legally lay down a few bucks on a certain Big Ten basketball team to win that night's game by a certain number of points?

Best case, "six months," Lang says. "But because of the volatility of this issue, it's more important that we do it right than do it fast."

On that point — and many others surrounding the complex and competitive effort to bring Las Vegas-style sports betting to Illinois — legislators do not stand in agreement, The News-Gazette found in surveying 55 representatives and senators last week.

But unlike with the state's 793-day budget impasse, the varying opinions cross party lines when it comes to how Illinois ought to respond to this month's landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which struck down as unconstitutional the 1992 federal law that prohibited every state but one — exempt Nevada — from authorizing sports gambling.

Among our findings:

Twenty-one of the 55 lawmakers said they support, or are leaning toward supporting legalization in some form. Eleven, including retiring Catlin Rep. Chad Hays, are Republicans. Among the 10 Democrats: Champaign Sen. Scott Bennett, who believes the potential revenue boost makes it worth legalizing "behavior that many sports fans already enjoy."

Four Republicans and two Democrats are for it — so long as certain conditions are met. For Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, those include "appropriate safeguards to protect the citizenry from being 'taken,'" a "fair split" of proceeds and revenue dedicated to the state's backlog of bills, pension debt and/or underfunded programs.

In other words, he says, not using these new funds to create new programs — "what I fear any time legislators start talking about 'new revenue.'"

Ten Republicans and one Chicago Democrat are against, or leaning heavily toward not supporting Illinois joining the flurry of states expected to jump at the chance to pass bills that could boost tax revenue and tourism. Most expressed reservations about what they view as overinflated economic advantages or the crippling social impact.

The passionate opposition includes Sen. Jacqueline Collins, D-Chicago, who believes the Supreme Court's 6-3 decision will only "open up more avenues for what is essentially a tax on addiction and desperation. The way we gather revenue says something about us as a society, and tying our bottom line to the hope that people lose their savings to gambling is just as ethically dubious as, for instance, mandating that police issue a certain number of citations every month to meet a quota."

Seventeen lawmakers, including Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, say they're in wait-and-see mode, unable to commit to a stance without knowing more about what a bill would — and wouldn't — allow.

The list of as-yet-unanswered questions remains a lengthy one.

What would the tax rate be? What protections would be in place for consumers? Would the same rules apply for gambling on college games as pro ones? Would wagering be offered online? In casinos? At racetracks? On the premises of any gas station, bar, fraternal hall or slot-machine parlor that's already licensed to allow gaming?

On that topic, Lang offered a hint of what he envisions, saying: "It's not my intention to turn every bar and every restaurant into a booking joint. However, with the modernization of apps, there's the possibility of having small, little kiosks; it's possible that every establishment where there's gaming could have the ability to have people gambling within their premises, even though every one wouldn't have licenses. They might be sublicenses."

Try to rush a bill through, and many in the undecided camp say they won't back it. But there's also a downside to a drawn-out, well-thought-out process, says one of the undecideds — Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington.

"We have to be aware that the states that act first to legalize sports betting will likely grab an outsized piece of the total revenue pie," he says. "So however we move forward, we need to do it quickly."

Here are the other arguments and counter-arguments we heard most frequently from legislators.

PROPONENTS: Tax revenue from $7 billion a year's worth of legal betting in Illinois would pay for a whole lot of roadwork, bridge upgrades, overdue bills and school construction projects.

That estimate comes from Rockford Democrat Steve Stadelman, who chairs the Senate Gaming Committee. It would lead to somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million a year in tax revenue, Lang projects, adding that it won't be the "cash cow" some believe but will provide an economic boost.

How that money should be spent is where the biggest difference of opinion will come in, lawmakers on both sides of the issue expect.

Sen. Chuck Weaver, R-Peoria, thinks he has a winning solution.

"In the past, I have not been a supporter of gaming expansions. Today, I see that our roads and bridges are in terrible shape and we are in dire need of funding for a capital bill," he says. "If the General Assembly does move forward on sports betting, I would like to see the revenues dedicated to roadwork and placed in the transportation lock box, so that we can make some headway on repairing our crumbling infrastructure."

OPPONENTS: Money wagered on Cubs-White Sox is money not being spent in restaurants or at the theater.

Rep. Mike Batinick, R-Plainfield, expects to be in the "super-duper minority" in his stance, which is this: "Gambling only raises money when you bring in people from outside your little bubble. It works for Las Vegas because you have people coming from all over. But if all states pass this, it will be a net zero for everyone. And the social cost will probably be a loss for us.

"We don't tend to do things efficiently in Illinois. If we did, the two places you'd have (gaming machines) are O'Hare Airport and downtown Chicago, where people from out-of-state can spend cash and leave. Yet those are two places we don't have it.

"When people spend money on gambling, that's money they're not spending (elsewhere in town). It's just a shiny object that we're going to chase instead of dealing with the pension crisis, property tax relief, all the other stuff. I just kind of shrug my shoulders."

Put him down as a solid "no."

PROPONENTS: Be it a riverboat in Peoria or the old OTB in Champaign, legal gambling in Illinois came long before the high court's May 14 ruling.

"You can already go down the street from your house and find a place to play slot machines, and those have proven to be great revenue producers for the state and for municipalities," says Sen. Steven Landek, D-Bridgeview. "You can also find a place online to make bets, but that money often goes overseas."

Like it or not, gambling proponents argue, there's already a bundle being wagered on sporting events here, only without a law allowing it, the state regulating it or Illinois benefiting from it.

Says Rep. Lindsay Parkhurst, R-Kankakee, who cast one of the 19 "yes" votes: "This ruling presents an opportunity for Illinois to regulate a billion-dollar industry illegally operating in our state since its creation."

OPPONENTS: Enough already with gambling.

Here's the crux of Shelbyville Republican Rep. Brad Halbrook's argument against any form of gaming expansion:

"Illinois already has the lottery, horse betting, riverboat casinos and video gaming in legion halls, fraternal organizations, liquor stores and in gas stations and truck stops. There is a gambling addiction crisis, and the cost to society is proving to be high."

This particular type of gaming expansion — betting on sporting events — worries Rep. Patti Bellock, R-Hinsdale, for a more personal reason.

Her mother, Dorothy Comiskey, and grandmother Grace Comiskey owned the Chicago White Sox. Or, as they were known for one dark period 20 years before Grandma was in charge, the game-fixing Black Sox.

"I oppose sports betting because it endangers the integrity of the games and adds undue pressure onto the players in each sport," Bellock says. "Furthermore, sports betting is an enticement to get young people involved in gambling from an early age, which is not a policyour state should encourage."

PROPONENTS: All signs points to Pennsylvania passing a sports betting law, with Delaware, Mississippi, New Jersey and West Virginia close behind and many more states expected to follow. So why not Illinois?

This is one issue the two party leaders in the state Senate agree on.

On the right, Bloomington's Bill Brady "wants to ensure Illinois is competitive and isn't losing out to other states," a spokesman says.

From the left, Senate President John Cullerton notes, "It's clear other states are going to create this economy — with or without Illinois."

OPPONENTS: Think of the children.

Make gambling legal and readily accessible to anyone with a smartphone and you're bound to create a new wave of young addicts, University of Illinois Professor Emeritus John Kindt has warns.

This is what mother of five Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, says she worries about most — that "the enticement of betting will start at younger ages and with unintended problems."

Among them, Kindt predicts: financial ruin.

Even more adamantly opposed to any bill than Ives is self-described Springfield "dinosaur" Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, who's set to retire at year's end.

Before spending these last 11 years in the state Senate, Bivins logged 38 in law enforcement, 20 of them as the longest-serving sheriff Lee County has ever had.

"Even the lottery preys on the poor — 57 percent of our lottery tickets are sold in the poorest areas of the state. That's problematic," he says. "It's ironic: Within our past legislation for gambling, they've included money for gambling addiction. That's like going to the bar and ordering a drink, then getting counseling for drinking too much at the bar.

"I've seen the stories of single moms going in the casino while the kids are in the car, chasing that brass ring, that false hope.

"That's the other side of this issue."

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