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Proposal for Chicago casino gets boost from Emanuel and Quinn

Gamblers Horseshoe Casino Hammond. “We have gambling or casinos rather Chicago. It happens be Hammond Ind.” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said.

Gamblers at the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond. “We have gambling, or casinos rather, in Chicago. It happens to be in Hammond, Ind.,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said. | Sun-Times library

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Updated: June 22, 2011 7:23PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday he’s all for the idea of a Chicago casino, provided certain “conditions” are met, including municipal ownership long-demanded by former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

“We have gambling, or casinos rather, in Chicago. It happens to be in Hammond, Ind. We’re losing that revenue. We can’t continue to do that,” the new mayor said.

Emanuel’s push comes as the Legislature’s spring term faces an end-of-month adjournment deadline with a laundry list of major items still unresolved, including a budget, new legislative maps, and workers compensation and state pension reforms.

While countless other casino expansions have collapsed over the years, Emanuel has an ally in Gov. Quinn, who is supportive of the new mayor’s effort to land a city casino, an aide said Thursday.

“He is open to the idea of a Chicago casino,” Quinn spokeswoman Annie Thompson said. “The governor has made no secret of his priority to bring jobs to Illinois and to invest in education. If there were a proposal on the table that would help raise the revenue to do that, he would be open to that.”

In touting a city casino, Emanuel was quick to pick up on the job-creation argument.

“There will be job growth, economic activity if we had a casino here in Chicago with the right conditions associated with that. And I have communicated the city’s interests for the taxpayers — for the people who live here and work here — of our interest in getting, finally, a casino license under the right conditions for the city.”

Pressed to describe his bottom-line criteria for a Chicago casino, Emanuel said, “It’s city ownership — the principles that have been there before. But, you guys also know that, in the past, what else they do with the rest of the bill can affect the economic capacity of that casino.”

Emanuel says he knows full well that past negotiations between Daley and a succession of governors — including Jim Edgar, George Ryan, Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn — have bogged down when lawmakers balked at city ownership and demanded that the city ante up too much for the casino license.

“There are some [outstanding] issues. Details matter in this. But, I’ve indicated where I stand on behalf of the city as it relates to that. I’ve communicated my interest in getting it for the city with the right conditions,” he said.

Though legislation has yet to surface, Emanuel’s call for a city casino has the backing of Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), whose chamber has twice backed casino expansions that include a city gambling venue, including a package that was not called for a House vote in January.

“I’m open to any ideas to assist the House in building support over there,” Cullerton said.

A spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) would not predict whether a new casino package would surface in the General Assembly’s waning days this spring session. But he noted the dynamics appear different now with a new mayor than during past tries to pass a gambling bill and that the timing might be right.

“It’s not like a brand-new issue,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said. “There’s time to examine. The question is can you come to agreement on all the issues. I’d think if you’re going to address it, this would be a year to do it because people would be hard-pressed to do it in an election year with new boundaries. Better to do it now.”

Earlier this week, Emanuel was even more definitive on the question of a city casino.

“I’m for a casino in Chicago. We have a casino in Chicago. It just happens to be in Hammond, Ind.. We’re losing that revenue. And I don’t think — when we are facing some of the choices [that come from cutting] $600 million — that we should deny that any longer,” the mayor said.

“The problem over the last two decades [is that] every time it’s clear that Chicago needs it — with certain conditions about ownership, etc.—the bill gets weighed down by every other interest, and it collapses of its own weight. I’ve spoken to the leaders of both chambers, both parties and the governor about the essentialness for a Chicago-owned casino as a way of [generating] both economic activity and a revenue source.”

Daley’s on-again-off-again flirtation with a Chicago casino — and the difficult negotiations with the state that inevitably followed — have made the city’s quest for a casino a boy-who-cried-wolf story that comes up every year, only to go nowhere in Springfield.

In 1989, Daley was a newly-elected mayor who opted out of the state’s riverboat gambling bill, only to change his mind three years later and embrace a $2 billion casino/entertainment complex proposed by three Las Vegas casinos.

That mega-project went nowhere — as have myriad other attempts to bring casino gambling to Chicago. But, with a new mayor and newly-elected governor and the state and city drowning in red ink, the political equation could change.

Emanuel has already scored a victory on his No. 1 legislative priority: an education reform bill that paves the way for a longer school day and school year and makes it easier to get rid of tenured teachers and more difficult for their union to go on strike.

Now, it appears, the new mayor is turning his attention to the gravy train of revenues that a Chicago casino could provide for a city facing a $1.2 billion-a-year structural deficit.

Past history shows that a lot can happen when the Chicago mayor’s office changes hands.

Daley passed on the opportunity to get a Chicago riverboat. But, he got a temporary income tax surcharge that ultimately became permanent shortly after taking office. The rookie mayor also cut a mega-deal with then-Gov. Jim Thompson that transferred control over Navy Pier to a city-state agency and paved the way for a $150 million renovation, setting the stage for Navy Pier to become the state’s No. 1 tourist attraction.

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