Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot pitches joint city-state owned casino

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot pitches joint city-state owned casino

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot is pitching two options for a Chicago casino to Illinois lawmakers, one a “public structure” that would be split between the city and state, the other a more conventional private operation.

Either of Lightfoot’s proposals would need the Illinois legislature to approve taxes lower than those written into expanded gambling legislation Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed earlier this year, the mayor said Tuesday.

“We’re looking at two different models, obviously changing the tax structure so that a private operator can be successful and we’ll see what happens,” Lightfoot said. “We’re socializing as we have been socializing both options with members of the General Assembly and the governor and his team.”

The mayor is making her pitch in advance of the legislature’s fall veto session, which begins at the end of this month. Prospects for a Chicago casino were shaken earlier this year after a mandated feasibility study found the state-approved proposal would not be viable largely because of “very onerous” taxes laid out in the legislation.

House Democratic leader Greg Harris was part of a group of about 20 lawmakers from Chicago who met with Lightfoot on Saturday to be briefed on her proposals for the city casino. He said the mayor figures to have a tough sell on getting a tax break, since the same state tax structure in place for a Chicago casino is also part of the package for the state’s 10 existing casinos and the six new casinos authorized in the latest bill.

“It’s going to be a big lift to get it done this fall,” Harris said.

In addition to potentially reopening discussions on the revenue splits for other casinos and for horse tracks, Lightfoot’s proposal to set up a joint city-state entity to hold the casino license figures to face significant challenges. “That’s going to be a big leap,” Harris said.

A number of lawmakers at the weekend meeting raised ethical concerns about the city and the state being directly in the casino business, Harris said.

The Pritzker administration is still waiting to hear the specifics of the mayor’s plan, spokeswoman Emily Bittner said in a statement.

“We understand that a number of lawmakers now have been briefed on these proposals, and we look forward to reviewing them after we are briefed on the details of the proposals,” Bittner said.

Pritzker “remains open to a number of approaches for making the Chicago casino successful, but with regard to public ownership, our administration would need to ensure that the challenges of public ownership are fully understood and addressed,” Bittner said.

The governor’s staff is scheduled to meet with the mayor’s office Wednesday for a briefing.

Asked why she would reopen talks about public ownership during a veto session, Lightfoot said her team wanted to give Springfield options.

“We don’t want to just say, ‘Hey here’s a problem, you legislature, you governor, fix it,’” Lightfoot said. “It’s incumbent upon us to take responsibility and we’ve done that I think in a responsible way by giving two options that the legislature can choose from.”

The mayor also pushed back on reports that she hasn’t briefed the governor, saying she’s had “multiple conversations personally with the governor so unfortunately, sometimes reporters get it wrong.”

“We told them back in the spring the tax structure wasn’t right. We’ve had repeated conversations with them after the feasibility study was issued about what needed to happen,” Lightfoot said. “I’ve spoken directly with the governor about what options are on the table.”

Pritzker and Lightfoot had breakfast earlier this month but didn’t get into the specifics of her casino plan, according to the governor’s office.

Lightfoot said her team has been “incredibly transparent” in soliciting suggestions and advice from a number of parties.

State Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, the gambling expansion law’s chief House sponsor, did not rule out the possibility of a Chicago casino deal getting done during the General Assembly’s two three-day sessions this fall. “There’s a lot of time left, even though the clock is ticking,” Rita said.

“What we need to do is get the stakeholders together and see how we can work through some of the issues we faced in the spring,” he said.

Although he’s sponsored gambling legislation in the past that would have created a city-owned casino, Rita said making changes to a heavily negotiated deal is challenging.

“You propose one idea, it creates three other issues. … You have to have the right mix,” he said.

Separately, Lightfoot said she’s proposed a revision to the real estate transfer tax that would give a break to people who sell their homes for $500,000 or less and gradually ramp up the tax on more expensive properties.


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