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Legislature approves gambling expansion; could cost Joliet $6 million a year

Emily McAsey

Emily McAsey

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Updated: July 7, 2011 3:48PM

JOLIET — The city of Joliet expects to lose as much as $6 million a year in gaming taxes if all the casinos in the proposed gambling expansion bill are built.

“That would takes us down to $15 million a year, and that would be down from a high mark of $37 million in 2007,” Joliet City Manager Thomas Thanas said Tuesday.

Gaming tax revenues already have fallen off to a projected $21.5 million this year, a decline attributed to the recession and an Illinois smoking ban.

Joliet officials and casino operators said the state smoking ban sent many of the customers at the city’s two casinos to Indiana, where customers can smoke while they gamble. Now, they expect to lose more customers because of the legislation that would allow casinos in Chicago and an undetermined location in the south suburbs.

The Illinois House and Senate approved expanded gambling Tuesday. Gov. Pat Quinnpreviously has said the proposal adds too much gambling in Illinois but has supported a casino in Chicago.

The bill allows casinos in Lake County, Rockford and Danville and slot machines at horse race tracks, O’Hare International Airport and Midway Airport.

The biggest impact on Joliet is expected to come from the Chicago and south suburban casinos.

Local legislators were trying to block the expansion before the Tuesday vote, but it passed the House and Senate.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s support for the Chicago casino made a big difference, said state Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi. “Mayor Daley was always lukewarm” about a Chicago casino, had said.

The Joliet Democrat, who voted against the legislation, expects layoffs at the Joliet casinos if Quinn signs the bill.

“Are we setting up all these casinos to fail or just to eke by? That’s my concern,” Wilhelmi said before the Senate vote.

State Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, said she supports a Chicago casino because it could bring the state money from tourists.

“I’m not opposed to expanding gaming, but this is too much,” she said before voting against the bill.

Holmes said the slot machines at horse race tracks will separate the Chicago market from the suburbs by ringing Chicago with the so-called “racinos.”

State casino revenues have generally been down since the smoking ban was put into place at the end of 2007. Some casino operators have been critical of the state plan to add competition.

“It’s a massive expansion at a time when our industry is down significantly,” said Eric Schippers, a spokesman for Penn National Gaming. The company owns the Hollywood Casinos in Joliet and Aurora and the casino in Alton.

Schippers said his company was hopeful Quinn would veto the bill. The House vote of 65-50 and the Senate vote of 30-27 would not be enough to override a veto by the governor.

The legislation awaiting Quinn’s signature also would give the city of Chicago special status as owner of the casino, a power no other Illinois city has.

Joliet Mayor Thomas Giarrante said he was not happy with the expansion of gambling or the proposal to give Chicago ownership of its casino.

“I just don’t think it’s fair that they would have control of that casino and the other cities don’t,” he said.

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