Chicago mayor wants weed, gambling to ease pension liability

Chicago Mayor Again Pitches Illinois Casino Expansion To Ease Budget Shortfall

Rahm Emanuel

Rahm Emanuel is on his way out of office as the mayor of Chicago, but not before making one final attempt to persuade Illinois lawmakers to move forward on a proposed city-owned casino.

During a city council hearing Wednesday, Emanuel said there is “no single solution” to the city’s financial problems. Rather, it will take a series of progressive principles to move Chicago forward.

“Our focus over the last eight years on talent, transportation, training, technology and transparency has helped create the conditions of certainty about Chicago and in the future. But for all that progress, there is still one flashing yellow light of uncertainty and instability about Chicago’s future. I am speaking, of course, about our pensions.”

According to Emanuel, the city needs to find $276 million in new revenue before 2020 to pay for higher police and fire pensions.

Where may a Chicago casino thrive?

Following the hearing, Emanuel told the Chicago Tribune that a port district site on the far southeast side of Chicago would be a suitable location for a casino.

“If you go down to the port authority where the golf course is,” he said, “there’s enough land there for both a hotel and casino. That would be a big boom economically to the southeast side of the city.”

The proposed site is currently home to the Harborside International golf course on Lake Calumet. According to the Tribune, the port district that owns the land is a joint city-state entity.

Emanuel said he has a “love-hate” relationship with the idea of a Chicago casino. Should the city build one; however, he argues that it should be located outside of the downtown area.

Location figures to be the key to any success. The competing Horseshoe Southern Indiana is located just across the border, roughly four miles from Emanuel’s proposed site.

Here’s more from the mayor:

“If we’re going to lose that money (to Indiana), then why don’t we bring this economic asset to a part of the city that doesn’t have it? Create a scenario where we get those jobs and capture people about 4 miles before they get to Hammond, and you’ll have golfing, a hotel and you can do all the entertainment. It doesn’t impact anything else you have in the city. That’s my view.”

Emanuel noted that city planning officials studied a number of potential casino locations outside of downtown. He also mentioned the likelihood that the next mayor of Chicago may make the final determination after he leaves office.

New source(s) of revenue needed soon

Even excluding the growing pension liability, Chicago is strapped for cash. The city’s municipal employers’ fund, for example, is also projected to increase by $310 million between now and 2022. That is a lot of money to dig up over the next four years.

“Next month,” Emanuel said, “a full legislative (gaming) package will be introduced in the General Assembly. I will represent Chicago’s priorities in those negotiations.” The mayor recently met with state Rep. Bob Rita to discuss the possibility of a state-owned casino.

Rita has been carrying the baton for a few years when it comes to Illinois gaming legislation. He is the sponsor of SB 7, in fact, though his proposal has been stuck in legislative purgatory since 2017.

Lawmakers have conducted plenty of hearings to discuss the individual topics that appear in Rita’s proposed package:

During Emanuel’s opening remarks, he also laid out additional steps the city could take to create new sources of revenue. His list included the legalization of marijuana, issuing fund-stabilization bonds and longterm retirement security for taxpayers.

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Future of Illinois gambling is behind schedule

Emanuel seems to understand one thing above all else: The financial benefits from expanded gaming will not simply appear out of thin air.

“We need to be clear-eyed about the fact that revenue would not materialize until years from now,” he said.

“Funding workers’ retirements going forward will require smarter and tough choices. It will require balancing our pension obligations with obligations to keep growing the economy, creating jobs, and making Chicago destination for economic growth by investing in our future.”

Alongside Emanuel, longtime oddsmaker Vic Salerno agrees that the city and state are both overdue for gaming expansion. The director of sportsbook operations for BetChicago told WGN Radio on Tuesday that it’s up to politicians in Springfield to get something done.

“The infrastructure is already in here,” Salerno said. “It’s just getting the lawmakers off their rear ends to get this through.”

Getting ducks in a row for 2019

Along with Emanuel not running for re-election, several other political shakeups could finally propel a gambling bill forward.

Incoming governor-elect J.B. Pritzker has been open to progressive ideas — including the legalization of marijuana — to ease the funding crisis.

Democrats will control all corners of the state legislature beginning next year, a position that brings an abundance of political clout. The batch of new Democrats taking office could help Pritzker advance his agenda.

“If we take all these steps from consideration model to amending the constitution, to issuing bonds, to a casino, to legalizing marijuana,” Emanuel said, “we will dramatically reduce what is asked of our taxpayers.”

Photo: Flickr / juggernautco (CC)

Nicholaus Garcia
- Nick comes from West Texas where he graduated from Texas Tech University with a degree in psychology. After a five year stint in Chicago where he wrote about local politics and graduated with a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia College Chicago, he moved to Washington, D.C. to write about issues related to gambling policy, sports betting and responsible gaming.
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