But a cloud hangs over the track. A bill has been introduced in the Illinois Legislature that would allow slot machines at horse tracks — something the racing industry has long said it needs — but an amendment has been added to the bill that would exclude Fairmount. Every track in Illinois except Fairmount would get slots.
The amendment was the work of state Rep. Robert Rita. He cited concerns about East St. Louis. He said that East St. Louis is so dependent on revenue from the Casino Queen that any decrease in that revenue would “compromise the safety of the people from East St. Louis.”
Rita is a Democrat from Blue Island. That’s in Cook County. In fact, his district includes parts of the far south side of Chicago. I grew up one block outside of his district. I cannot recall anybody in my old neighborhood ever expressing concern about the people of East St. Louis. For that matter, I doubt if we knew that East St. Louis was in Illinois.
So why would Rita be worried about the well-being of people so far removed from his district? That is grist for conspiracy theorists, but before getting into that, let me give you a little background.
For several years, the Illinois Legislature has been trying to come up with a bill that would expand gaming in Illinois. New casino licenses would be issued. The impetus comes from Chicago. City officials complain they are losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year to casinos across the border in Indiana.
Part of the gaming expansion would allow slot machines at racetracks. Track owners point out that slots are allowed at tracks in Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Arkansas. Industry officials say the machines have breathed new life into the tracks. The slots mean more revenue, which means bigger purses, which means better horses and more racing dates. That means more jobs.
Twice in the last three years, the Illinois Legislature has passed a gaming expansion bill only to have it vetoed by Gov. Pat Quinn, who has expressed concerns mainly about the public ownership of the proposed Chicago mega-casino.
The current bill would authorize five new casinos. In addition to a casino in downtown Chicago, one would be just south of the city — in Rita’s neck of the woods. That brought Rita into the game. I chatted with him a couple of times this past week in an effort to figure this out.
Who stands to gain if the gaming bill doesn’t pass? The current license holders. They’ll have another year without having to share gaming revenue. Also, the casinos in Indiana will be big winners if the bill stalls. Who stands to gain the most if the bill passes? Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The other locations that will get the new casinos, including the southern suburbs. Who’s in charge of putting the bill together? The Illinois Legislature.
No wonder conspiracy theorists are busy. Let’s pretend this is a horse race. Pick the winner yourself.
1. Big-Hearted Pol — No games here. Rita is a rare breed of politician. He truly cares about the people of East St. Louis.
2. Don’t Turn Your Back — Rita is working on behalf of somebody other than his constituents. He hopes to scuttle the bill.
3. Loves a Queen — Rita wants to pass a bill, but he’s working on the side for the Casino Queen. Why not do two things at once?
4. Anybody But You — Rita doesn’t like Fairmount Park. Plain and simple.
5. Cook County Chrome — Rita represents an area that wants a casino, and he’s ready to do whatever it takes to get the bill passed. He’s got some colleagues from East St. Louis who could bring the Black Caucus into the fray if he doesn’t get some concessions from Fairmount. That’s why he wants to protect East St. Louis. He says the owner of the track — that would be William Stiritz — is a rich guy who is used to getting his own way. Rita figures the amendment excluding Fairmount is the best way to get the owner’s attention.
That last one sounds like the favorite to me, except that track manager Brian Zander has argued — persuasively, I think — that most of the track’s customers drive past the Casino Queen to get to Fairmount. He doesn’t think the track will be taking much business from the casino. Also, the original bill sent part of the new tax revenue to East St. Louis.
By the way, Rita sent a letter Friday to his “metro East colleagues in the General Assembly.” He said he proposed his amendments to spark debate. He said he’s hoping for a compromise.
The race is on.