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Critics urge state to reconsider video gambling expansion
By Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/25/2009 1:13 PM | Updated: 8/25/2009 5:22 PM

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Legalizing video gambling machines in bars, clubs and restaurants across the state appeared to take a blow Tuesday with the Illinois Gaming Board chairman saying he can't move forward without the needed money and staff.

"We will do it, but we will do it at our own pace, when we are funded and when we have the people to do it," said Chairman Aaron Jaffe, a former judge charged with overseeing the expansion of some 45,000 video gambling machines across as many as 15,000 establishments. "The state of Illinois has had enough disgraces already. We don't intend to make any more messes."

At the same time, a coalition of watchdog groups, politicians and anti-gambling advocates is forming in opposition to the new law, hoping to capitalize on the delay in implementation to convince lawmakers to reverse course. They spoke before the gaming board Tuesday and held a news conference, saying the plan to allow up to five machines in any bar, club, truck stop and liquor-serving establishment would "soon turn Illinois into the Wild West of gambling."

The coalition also urged more suburbs and counties to ban the slotlike machines, saying they will contribute to increased crime, corruption and gambling addiction.

"These machines are created in a way to draw you in and keep you in," said John Pastuovic, spokesman for the Chicago Crime Commission.

Yet, the fact remains that the law is on the books, signed by Gov. Pat Quinn last month as he reneged on a campaign pledge to not support gambling expansion.

Plus, up to $400 million in gambling losses from the machines is supposed to help fund a $31 billion public works package lawmakers almost universally supported.

Lawmakers are not inclined to go back to the drawing board to come up with those funds after having already rejected plans to raise the gas tax or other fees instead.

The legislation was pushed by lobbyist Joseph Berrios, who also heads the Cook County Democrats, is a tax appeal commissioner and is running for Cook County assessor.

Meanwhile, supporters of the legalization argue it will create jobs, stimulate the economy and bring to the light a practice already taking place off the books.

A trade group representing businesses that stand to gain from operating the machines said Tuesday it supports the gaming board's efforts to take the needed time to develop proper rules and procedures. It is lobbying towns to not ban the machines.

"In fact, this is a fairly painless way (to the vast majority of citizens) to fund badly needed public works projects," said Zack Stamp, who represents the trade group, in a statement issued Tuesday.

Jaffe painstakingly outlined the difficulties the gaming board will have in regulating the tens of thousands of machines. He pointed out they need to develop a computer system to monitor all the machines 24 hours a day and then investigate tens of thousands of bars, game operators, game technicians and other establishments for licensing.

The legislation requires the gaming board to come up with rules on the system by Sept. 11. Jaffe said that is "unrealistic" and "impossible."

The gaming board also has to continue to regulate nine casinos and the addition of a 10th in Des Plaines.

"I have no intention of asking the staff to give up regulating the casinos in order to start on this journey to do video poker without having the resources to do it," Jaffe said.

Of the six states that have some form of legalized video gambling in bars, Illinois will be by far the largest.

Jaffe said he has talked with the governor's staff about his concerns, but hasn't gotten a clear answer as to a solution. It is expected lawmakers may take the issue up this fall.

Yet, momentum against such widespread gambling appears to be growing, with dozens of towns in Illinois looking to ban the machines before they even come online.

Rosemont, Country Club Hills and the DuPage County Board have already voted to not allow the slotlike machines, in part on the grounds they will lead to more gambling addicts. The DuPage ban will only affect unincorporated areas of the county.

The Cook County Board, Elburn and Elmhurst are expected to vote on a similar bans in the coming months and more than a dozen suburban mayors polled by the Daily Herald this summer said they were hesitant to allow the widespread gambling in their towns.