State Government

Illinois gears up for 
video gambling start

JUSTICE – Diners heading into Chino’s Pizzeria in this Chicago suburb will get more than a chance to try the specialty sausage and mushroom calzones – they’ll soon be among the first in Illinois to try their hand at video poker.

More than three years after the state approved video gambling, the first batch of machines is arriving at bars, veterans’ establishments and truck stops. The machines should be up and running within a matter of weeks, as state officials iron out last-minute details.

Three poker terminals were recently installed in a side room at Chino’s where the tables are covered with green checkered tablecloths and pictures of classic cars line the walls.

“I want more business and there are people around here who like to play,” said pizzeria owner Roberto “Chino” Vasquez. “A lot of people have been asking about it.”

The pizzeria and bar about 25 miles from downtown Chicago is among the nearly 100 establishments that have been approved for state licenses. Hundreds more – the list is 126 pages long – await approval, according to the Illinois Gaming Board’s website. Within a year, up to 75,000 machines could be installed statewide, according to gaming officials.

The state approved video gambling in 2009 to help fund a $31 billion construction program to fix schools, roads, bridges and other transportation projects. It was estimated to raise about $375 million a year for the state. A spokeswoman for Gov. Pat Quinn said updated projections have not been completed.

But the process has been slow. Shortly after the law passed, Chicago Blackhawks owner and liquor distributor Rocky Wirtz sued the state over higher taxes in the legislation to pay for the construction program. That lawsuit questioned the legality of video gambling, but the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the law was constitutional.

Then there were errors in the contract bidding process and the Gaming Board claimed staffing shortages.

State Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat who has backed legislation expanding the number of casinos in the state, accused the board of “dragging its feet” and alleged that many previous board members don’t support gambling.

“They should have instantly and immediately implemented the law that was passed,” he said.

Gaming officials wouldn’t address the criticism, and Gaming Board spokesman Gene O’Shea said the scope of the project simply has been very large.

“It’s a totally new industry,” said O’Shea, who estimated that video gambling will begin in Illinois by Labor Day or earlier.

In the meantime, there’s been a flurry of activity.

Gaming officials have cracked down on establishments with illegal poker machines. Under the 2009 act, video gaming is allowed only at approved establishments, including restaurants with liquor licenses and fraternal organizations. Any machine that isn’t approved must be removed by Aug. 20 or will be subject to seizure.

There can be up to five machines per site, and the state says towns can get 5 percent of net income after winnings are paid. The state gets 25 percent and business owners and machine operators split the rest.

Many Illinois communities have reversed bans on video gambling to take advantage of the revenue it could generate.

Springfield, Quincy and Round Lake all voted in July to allow video gambling. Chicago officials have said there are no plans to reverse the city’s ban.

Opposition has largely come from church groups who question how much revenue the machines will bring and worry about the social cost.

Kirk Boyenga, a retired Springfield psychologist who has spoken against video gambling at city council meetings, said he has seen the destructive effects of problem gambling on families.

“There’s the impact of money that would be used for other things leaving households, leaving the local community,” said Boyenga, 64, who is working with Illinois Churches in Action.

Some communities have taken those concerns into account. Urbana did not have a ban, but seriously considered one after the vocal opposition, including from University of Illinois officials who argued that college students are especially susceptible to problem gambling and video gambling would be a trigger.

Instead of prohibiting gambling, the city council passed a series of restrictions last month. Only 12 businesses in the city can have video gambling, establishments must pay the city $200 per machine and all machines must also have signs with a gambling addiction hotline and the signs of a problem gambler.

“We just felt we needed a compromise position,” said council member Diane Marlin. “We wanted to support businesses and put a limit” on video gambling.

Quincy alderman David Bauer said it was too early to make revenue projections, but that he believed it would be beneficial – and that most people in his ward wanted the machines.

“If you don’t want to go, you don’t need to go into the establishment,” he said.

While he doesn’t gamble much, 80-year-old Bill Barnes is looking forward to video gambling. He stopped for sodas with his grandchildren at Chino’s recently as machines were being installed.

“It’s a good idea,” he said. “Anything that helps promote business is good.”

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