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More gambling, more scandals? You can bet on it

Updated: September 11, 2011 12:22AM



Judge James Zagel, not normally given to a lot of chit-chat from the bench in his courtroom, seemed to catch lawyers in the Rod Blagojevich case a bit off guard earlier this week by inquiring if the big gambling-expansion legislation had passed in Springfield.

The lawyers, no doubt too engrossed in the trial to be closely monitoring current events in the General Assembly, gave each other puzzled looks. If any of them offered an answer, it was inaudible from my seat in the courtroom.

“Interesting in light of this case, but of no significance,” observed Zagel, before returning to the matters at hand.

This little scene actually played out several hours before the Illinois Senate put the finishing touches on the gambling bill Tuesday and sent it on to Gov. Pat Quinn, who on Wednesday described as “excessive” its unprecedented expansion of gambling opportunities — but wouldn’t commit to vetoing it.

Oddly enough, just down the hall at the same hour Zagel was speaking, lawyers for another former Illinois governor, George Ryan, were arguing to a federal appeals court that his prison sentence on corruption charges should be reduced in hopes of seeing him set free.

More pols will try to get rich quick

I can’t say if Zagel was aware that the Ryan case was in play that morning, nor why he brought up the gambling bill. Judges don’t take questions from reporters as a rule.

But I can tell you what the juxtaposition of all these events made me think:

Here we go again.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this gambling bill, if it becomes law, will eventually lead to future activity at the federal courthouse for another group of elected officials or their minions trying to get rich quick — assuming the FBI isn’t too busy chasing terrorists to notice.

A big scandal is almost unavoidable. There’s just too much money at stake. To the extent it is avoidable through aggressive regulation, there’s no real appetite for that either, as exemplified by the expansion bill making an end run around the Illinois Gaming Board’s deliberative approach to preparing for video poker machines in bars. The gambling bill would force state regulators to issue provisional licenses within two months, no matter whether the applicants have been properly investigated.

With the state and the city broke and looking for easy fixes, there’s not a lot of patience right now for concerns about such niceties as keeping organized crime out of the government-controlled gambling monopoly. That doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of lip service.

Quinn didn’t leave himself a lot of wiggle room with his negative comments about the extent of the gambling expansion. He’d have to really twist himself in knots to sign the bill as currently written. But we all know he has a tendency to be somewhat pliable on occasion — and new Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is already counting the dough from what would be the city’s first licensed casino — and possible slot machines at the airports.

I’ve actually grown weary of arguing against gambling expansion. It’s a lousy business for the government to depend so heavily upon, but I only end up sounding moralistic.

Legalized, government-controlled gambling is just another form of taxation. I always call it the sucker tax. And I always say that the sucker tax is a perfect tax.

You know what constitutes a perfect tax? It’s a tax that somebody else has to pay, not me.

I don’t go to the casinos, and I don’t plan to start just because they put one downtown. The sucker tax is one tax I don’t have to pay.

I realize a lot of people do like “the boats,” as we euphemistically call them in Illinois, and I’m not criticizing you. To each his own.

But five more casinos in the state, slot machines at the horse tracks and a headlong rush into video poker is not a healthy direction for our state.

Funny thing, but Blagojevich, who is in trouble in part because he allegedly tried to squeeze $100,000 in campaign donations from racetrack operators by dangling his support for legislation giving them a share of casino profits, was never able to steer gambling expansion through the General Assembly. There were myriad reasons for that, not the least of which was that legislators didn’t trust him.

Gambling also figured into Ryan’s case, where it was suggested some of his pals who got sweetheart deals from the state supplied him with cash to gamble at the riverboats.

While I don’t think Quinn would ever engage in such activity, he could save somebody else a lot of grief by pulling the plug on this law now.



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