Prussing splits the difference
Video gambling has come to Champaign-Urbana, more in Champaign than Urbana.
Caught between those who advocated a free market and others stressing the social problems caused by video gambling, Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing persuaded city council members in her city to take a middle course.
In following Prussing's path of compromise, Alderman Eric Jakobsson wryly commented, he and fellow council members had "a unique experience in the sense that we're making nobody happy." But that's not all bad — compromise means that everybody not only lost something but gained something.
This measured approach appears to be a reasonable way to settle a dispute.
By a 4-3 vote, the Urbana council approved allowing up to 12 businesses in the city to operate video gambling machines — up to five machines per business with the licensing fee set at $200 per machine.
Champaign already has approved video gambling while communities representing 39 percent of the state's population have taken advantage of an opt-out provision in the state law expanding gaming options in Illinois. Many other communities have yet to decide which approach they will take.
In case voters haven't noticed — and it's hard to imagine that anyone hasn't noticed — the foray into video gambling demonstrates once again how reliant on gambling revenues legislators have become.
The state has levied a 30 percent tax on the income each machine produces — 5 percent to local government and 25 percent to a fund that pays for state capital projects.
Even as video gambling went into effect on Aug. 1, Gov. Pat Quinn and state legislators remain at loggerheads over a bill that would dramatically expand casino gambling in the state. Saying the legislation would allow too much casino gambling without sufficient oversight, Quinn has threatened to veto the legislation.
Meanwhile, the state remains effectively bankrupt and deeply in debt despite the January 2011 state income tax increase of 67 percent and corporate income tax increase of 46 percent.
Years ago, former state Rep. Bill Black explained why legislators are fascinated with gambling as a revenue source. The average taxpayer hates to pay higher taxes to fund government's needs, he said, while at the same time tens of thousands of those same resentful taxpayers happily provide government many millions of dollars in new revenue by gambling.
Given the choice of stirring up a hornet's nest by raising taxes or letting sleeping dogs lie by expanding gambling opportunities, legislators take the path of least resistance.
But there's a problem.
Unfortunately, the advocates of expanded gambling dramatically overestimate how much new revenue government will generate by expanding gambling. Another problem is that many people get themselves and their families in financial trouble by losing far more than they can afford.
Anita Bedell, executive director of Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, contends the state has laid the groundwork for considerable social misery by so cavalierly creating opportunities for people to gamble away their paychecks. The counter-argument to that, of course, is that adults should be free to decide how they will spend their money, and it's nobody's business if they choose to gamble.
People have different reactions to those arguments. But there's no dispute that, overall, gambling is a loser's game. The odds always favor the house.
In the case of video gambling, the machines actually are set to keep 20 cents out of every dollar that goes in. That's a no-lose proposition for the machines, leaving the real contest about who will come out on top to be hashed out among the players.
Nonetheless, the lure of something for nothing is irresistible, and it's harmless enough when video gambling or other games of chance are practiced in moderation. Moderation, however, also applies to the cities that host these kinds of activities. In that regard, Urbana took a reasonable path.