As the debate about legalizing pot continues in Springfield, look no further than our state's experiment with video gaming and the sheer volume of Decatur gambling machines to understand what can go haywire.
Back in 2009, the Video Gaming Act cleared the General Assembly with wildly unrealistic expectations about how much money would come rolling in. This was at the height of the Great Recession, and lawmakers saw a way to give municipalities a cut of gaming revenues and throw money at a badly needed $31 billion infrastructure and jobs program. The bill was passed quickly and with limited debate.
Today, Illinois has 30,000 video slot and poker machines in restaurants, bars, truck stops and standalone businesses, sometimes in clusters. For someone who hasn't been in Illinois in a decade, the explosion of these parlors is jarring.
And yet despite the saturation, revenues have been far less than what was expected — about $1.3 billion lower during the first five years of operation, according to a ProPublica Illinois analysis. There are also societal impacts, like gambling addiction, since the machines started accepting bets in 2012. Still, municipalities like Decatur have come to rely on the money to support the budget, as reported in today's Herald & Review.
There are parallels between this and the current conversation about recreational marijuana. Like with the video gambling, lawmakers are dangling a potential revenue source in front of cash-starved municipalities and the lawmakers who represent them.
Also similar is that these places can opt out of having gaming businesses, but they also face losing all that cash. That puts cities in a tough spot: Ban marijuana dispensaries, with the risk that the businesses will just set up shop right across the border, taking with it all that money, while still saddling them with drug treatment costs and other issues for residents.
All of this makes for a big puzzle, which is why lawmakers need to take care in the final rush to the session's end on May 31.
That hasn't happened so far. In fact, this legislation is moving so fast, it's hard to keep up.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker and lawmakers who back legal pot released the bill a week ago Saturday, a tactic clearly meant to limit serious analysis of the 300-page document. One of the big elements is the creation of a "Cannabis Regulation Oversight Officer" charged with figuring out "statutory and regulatory recommendations concerning the adult use program."
That's cause for concern. Our issue is not with legalizing pot, it's with lawmakers running to a revenue source without considering the impact, including the saturation point for communities. It's their job to sort our statutes and regulations, not some new hire.
We've seen this before. When legislation promising so much is rushed, there's a big risk. Repeating the mistakes of the video gaming debacle suggests another approach would be beneficial. If not, we're stuck with the results.