Tourism experts testify on revenue and development possibilities with a Chicago casino

Industries Associated Press

A future Chicago casino could generate much-needed revenue and draw crowds to city hotels and restaurants, tourism experts testified Monday during a gambling expansion hearing that comes as state legislators stare down a budget deadline and fresh concerns about finding new funding sources.

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Legislators must try to close a roughly $6 billion gap before May 31, but their task is amplified. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Friday that a 2013 law attempting to overhaul the nation's worst-funded pension systems — Illinois' unfunded liability is over $100 billion — was unconstitutional. The plan would have saved money by cutting retirement benefits, among other changes.

While pensions weren't mention during the roughly three hours of testimony Monday, backers of gambling legislation said conditions were lining up for the best shot in years. Democratic former Gov. Pat Quinn twice vetoed expansion plans, but Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has said he's open to more casinos.

"Revenue is more of a need today than it was last week. Here's an area that we could generate revenue," Rep. Bob Rita, a Democrat, told reporters. "It's just a matter of how do we get there and what model do we use."

Two proposals are on the table — one calling for a Chicago casino and one adding four more casinos — with another in the works.

The hearing was the second of its kind this month as Rita and others pushing expanded gambling tinker with details. The lingering issues are tax rates and who should own casinos, municipalities or the state. Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants a Chicago-owned casino; plans sponsored by Rita outline state-owned facilities.

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Tourism experts from Choose Chicago and hotel and restaurant associations said a casino in or near downtown could capitalize on existing resources and boost economic development, as well as bring in revenue.

Opponents argued the market has become saturated and revenue is down at most of Illinois' casinos. Others expressed concerns about a rise in addiction.

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