Illinois Video Gambling Legalization Stirs Controversy in Campaigns, Counties

09/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In his quest for a seat in the Illinois State Senate from Chicago's north lakefront, gay rights activist Jim Madigan focuses much of his campaign fire against Democratic primary opponent State Senator Heather Steans' vote to legalize video gaming to help fund a $31 billion state capital construction program.

"It's a pretty catastrophic vote," said Madigan in a recent interview with your Huffington Post blogger, referring to Steans' "yes" vote for legislation that would enable potentially 45,000 video gaming machines in bars, restaurants, truck stops, and other locations around Illinois.

"We are beginning to incorporate into our revenue stream a business that has been reportedly included organized crime influence," said Madigan, a civil rights attorney. "It's the last thing the district needs."

For her part, Steans says she equally dislikes video gaming, but construction-starved and economically-battered Illinois needs the repaired roads, fixed schools, and 439,000 jobs that the new capitol construction legislation will bring, legislation partially funded by legalization.

"It's not ideal," said Steans. "I'm not a fan of legalized video poker, but, that said, in June of this year we lost 5,600 construction jobs in Illinois"

And jobs are proponents' first line of defense.

"This is a crucial economic recovery initiative that will generate what's needed most in Illinois: jobs, jobs, jobs," said Governor Pat Quinn at the bill's signing. "Illinois Jobs Now! provides many long-awaited improvements to our bridges and roads, transportation networks, schools and communities."

The new law -- which Steans notes permits communities to opt out by referendum -- is likely to generate approximately $287.4 million to $369.6 million for the state per year by the 25% tax rate, according to an Illinois Commission Government Forecasting & Accountability legislative analysis.

Despite the promised jobs, candidates like Madigan and GOP gubernatorial hopeful Kirk Dillard, a state Senator from DuPage County -- who voted for the legalization and now regrets his vote -- are balking, as voters from multiple counties in the Chicago area and one downstate county.

Crain's political columnist Greg Hinz reported in his blog earlier this week that DuPage, Will, Cook, and Lake Counties are poised to take action to prohibit video gaming machines in unincorporated areas.

In Peoria County, board member Carol Trumpe wants to consider a ban. "I think we ought to discuss it," she said.

Critics, like Madigan, also take issue with the legislative process that approved video gaming legalization. Madigan dismisses hearings by the Illinois House Gaming Committee, chaired by State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), that gave a platform to opponents over the years as irrelevant to recent proceedings.

State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg (D-Evanston), however, disagrees with that assessment.

"Because of the exhaustive efforts of both Lou [Lang] and [State Senator] Terry Link [D-Vernon Hills] in recent years, the video gaming issue and other gaming issues have not suffered for lack of oxygen or public exposure," said Schoenberg

Lang himself is slightly bemused by the sudden opposition to the machines.

"There are -- and have been -- thousands of unregulated and untaxed video gaming machines throughout Illinois -- for years," Lang dryly noted. "Now, all of a sudden, there is concern regarding the existence of these machines?"

Ultimately, Lang believes counties -- whose budgets are under pressure from the recession -- will think twice before foregoing the 5% tax revenue from video gaming.

"Do county officials really want to explain cuts to their health departments to anxious voters?" Lang asked. "I don't think so."

And of course electoral politics, like between Madigan and Steans, likely lie just below the surface for some county officials.

DuPage County Board Chair Bob Schillerstrom will likely face Dillard in the 2010 Illinois Republican gubernatorial primary and Dillard's video gaming vote -- and subsequent flip-flop -- will be a handy club with which to clobber Dillard.

And for those who are counting -- there were more than 10,000 legalized gambling machines in the state before the recent legalization.