SPRINGFIELD, IL -- The political fortunes of the planned Illinois video lottery industry remain uncertain as leading politicians around the state continue to wrangle over or dodge the issue. More than 60 cities, towns and other jurisdictions have opted out of participating in the tavern-based VLT market, created by the state's 2009 Video Gaming Act and slated to roll out later this year.
According to VLT supporters in the coin-op industry, regulated gaming must be approved in heavily populated Chicago in order to be financially and politically viable. Getting Chicago in the market would guarantee that operator-run machines have enough customers to generate sufficient taxes to satisfy state legislators.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was believed to have been an early supporter of video lottery. But in late February, Daley ruffled the feathers of some pro-VLT state legislators when he told one interviewer, "I don't know how anybody can come out for it if we don't allow video poker in Chicago. No, there's no discussion. No one's ever even brought it up."
Later, a Daley spokesperson said there was "no timetable" to consider supporting VLTs in Chicago. (That ambiguous statement could mean anything from "It's not on our agenda and we don't plan to put it there" to "We still have plenty of time to make up our minds about legalizing video poker in the months to come.")
In Springfield, state Sen. Mike Jacobs (D-Moline) responded angrily to Daley's statement. Jacobs said that Chicago should not receive state tax funds for capital projects if Daley is "not interested in paying" for them. He also introduced a bill that would require cities and counties that opt out of video lottery to pay a monthly fee to the state to make up for "lost" VLT revenues. "There's no such thing as a free lunch," Jacobs said later. "You can't allow people to opt out of taxes because of the moral reasons."
Senate president John Cullerton (D-Chicago) quickly came out against the Jacobs bill and against similar legislation that was sponsored by three members of the state's House of Representatives. In early March, Gov. Pat Quinn sought to defuse the controversy by asking Jacobs to scuttle his bill. Jacobs obligingly withdrew his legislation, but continued to protest the prospect of any nonparticipating jurisdictions receiving state funding for capital projects.
Quinn, who is up for reelection this fall, is doing a delicate balancing act on the video lottery issue these days. Last year, the governor was the leading proponent of the Video Gaming Act; he signed it into law last July. But now local papers say the governor "risks public backlash at the polls in November if he pushes [video gaming] too hard."