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Editorial: Give Chicago a casino, but not before we get pension reform

Illinois Gov. PQuinn

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn

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Updated: December 30, 2012 3:43PM

There’s a reason Illinois hasn’t fixed a pension crisis so big people around the country are talking about it: It’s really hard.

The General Assembly is expected to take on pension reform some time before Jan. 8. Excellent. But it will take an enormous effort, and there will be no room for distractions.

Competing for the Legislature’s attention is a bill to expand gambling in Illinois, including giving Chicago its first casino. In August, Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed the bill, which would allow five more casinos around the state and slot machines at racetracks, saying it didn’t have enough safeguards against corruption.

The Legislature could try to override Quinn’s veto, or it could draw up new legislation that Quinn can support. Senate President John Cullerton would prefer the second route.

But right now, the Legislature should do neither. Instead, lawmakers should keep their sights on pension reform until the job is done.

We support a Chicago casino. Chicago needs the revenue, and there’s no reason the city should forgo that money when towns right next door are collecting casino revenues.

But we also agree with Quinn that the legislation needs work. It expands gambling too much, and its regulatory oversight is too weak.

More to the point, we agree with the Civic Federation that any gambling bill should be put aside until the Legislature fixes the state’s biggest financial problem — pensions gone wild.

The best argument for gambling expansion is that it would bring in new revenue for state and local government. But those new dollars would be a drop in the bucket compared with the mountain of unfunded pension debt.

To put it in perspective, it would take about 440 years for that extra revenue from gambling, an estimated $220.5 million a year starting in 2016, to pay off the state’s $97 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. And that doesn’t even account for the interest, which Quinn says is piling up at a rate of $17 million a day.

A casino bill can wait, at least until the tulips bloom. Nothing must distract us from resolving the state’s pension crisis.

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