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Steinberg: One pocket filled, the other picked

Updated: June 11, 2013 6:09AM

The joke was old in 1854 when Henry Thoreau told it in “Walden”: A man on horseback approaches a bog. He asks a boy standing there if the swamp has a hard bottom. Yes, the rustic lad says, indeed it does. So the traveler rides his horse into the swamp. Man and horse quickly begin to sink.

“I thought you said that this bog has a hard bottom,” he says, water at his knees.

“So it has,” the boy replies, “but you have not got halfway to it yet.”

Sometimes, a key bit of information gets left out. In jokes, but also in politics, such as when Mayor Rahm Emanuel — seemingly unknowingly — repeated one of the older political jokes in Illinois.

“I have said repeatedly that if Chicago were to build a casino, all revenue would be directed toward modernizing schools in our neighborhoods and communities,” the mayor said early last week in a statement, backed up by a feel-good video of children learning in spanking-new facilities, ending with this line: “100 percent of revenue from a Chicago casino will fund Chicago schools.” (Gosh, it’s in a video, so it must be true...)

That’s the “hard bottom” part of the joke.

The unsaid punch line can be supplied by anyone with a longish memory, anyone recalling what happened on the state level with another kind of gambling where all proceeds were to go to kids: the Illinois Lottery.

Rather than have all the fun myself, I invited Andy Shaw, president of the Better Government Association, to do the honors.

“The lottery was a shell game,” said Shaw. “In the beginning, the lottery was hailed as this education panacea. All that happened is this money came in from the lottery — lottery funds did all go to education — but for every dollar that went into the general fund, another dollar was pulled out of the pot. It ended up a wash, and a scandal.”

Education actually came late to the party with the Illinois Lottery. It began as a generic money grab. For 100 years, state lotteries were illegal in Illinois, banned in the 1870 constitution. But at the 1970 rewrite, the ban was quietly dropped, in light of economic realities, souring even then — New Hampshire had already become the first state to hold a lottery, in 1964, and other states were piling on. In 1972 Michigan leapt and Illinois began the debate, with Chicago Democrats gung-ho for new sources of money, while Downstate Republicans, true to form, fretted about morality. “We’re about to legitimize crime,” said Sen. Hudson R. Sours (R-Peoria) in 1973.

It was all for a good cause — not education, to begin with, but mass transit, a 1970s fixation on par with disco. Education became the goal, and the Legislature passed a law that all lottery revenues would fund the schools — except, as Shaw said, nothing in the law prevented an equal amount from being subtracted. Future laws tried to fix that.

This doesn’t mean a Chicago casino would necessarily be a bad thing. People choose their pleasures, and if your joy in life consists of parking your butt for hours in front of a slot machine and tapping that big button like a rhesus monkey self-administering cocaine, far be it for me to judge. If the Rivers Casino could open without Des Plaines becoming Sodom, Chicago would tolerate a casino, too. Even if every casino dollar the city puts toward education gets diverted out the back end, that would still mean more money to the city, and less cash to be extracted from every Chicagoan slow to brake at a changing light.

When lottery laws finally closed the loophole, another, even greater problem with the every-penny-to-kids concept was exposed.

“Unfortunately, it’s just a fraction of what the schools cost,” said Shaw. “If the lottery added $500 or $600 or $700 million, the schools cost $4 or $5 or $6 billion. It was nice, but it was really pocket change, and it never really solved the problem.”

There’s a lot of that going around.

For the record, Shaw is skeptical whether the Illinois lottery lesson should be directly applied to the Chicago casino.

“It’s way early in the game,” he said. “I don’t personally think Mayor Emanuel would do that — it would be so easily discovered. The transparency, the watchdog functions are so much more robust nowadays. He would get away with that for five minutes.”

Yet ordinances that hold politicians to their word are still popular.

“The feeling is, you can’t trust anyone, you need an ordinance,” said Shaw. “If the mayor says it’s going for education, than that ought to be codified in an ordinance. At the end of the day, pledges don’t mean much unless turned into statutes. It’s too easy to fudge, and the lottery is the best example.”

So will it? I phoned Tarrah Cooper, the mayor’s press secretary. How can we be sure Chicago casino cash put into the left pocket of schools won’t be taken out of the right?

“It’s his word, he’s said it numerous times,” Cooper replied. “Have you seen the video?”

Ah yes, the video! Then, it must be true.

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