By Michael Kleen
Last week, the Illinois House passed a bill that would authorize five new casinos, including one in Rockford, and allow slot machines at the state’s racetracks. This bill was just short of the 71 votes needed to shield it from Gov. Pat Quinn’s threatened veto.
It is my contention that Gov. Quinn should not only sign this bill into law, but the Illinois legislature should go one step further and replace the state’s haphazard gambling laws with one simple piece of legislation that taxes, regulates and treats gaming in Illinois like any other entertainment industry.
Legal gambling has come to Illinois in fits and starts. For much of our history, most forms of gambling were prohibited by law and either controlled by organized crime or occasionally tolerated by public officials and law enforcement.
Betting on horse races has been legal since 1927, an Illinois lottery began in 1972, and in 1990, then-Gov. Jim Thompson signed a bill authorizing 10 licenses for riverboat casinos.
In 2009, legislators voted to legalize the video poker machines that had already been operating in thousands of bars, restaurants and truck stops throughout the state. Gov. Quinn, however, has dragged his heels over any further expansion, and he vetoed a gaming bill last year that would have brought a casino to Rockford.
Evangelical Christian churches have long opposed gambling, card playing, lotteries, and horse racing as immoral distractions from a pious and virtuous life. Gambling opponents in general believe it is a predatory form of entertainment with no redeeming value. The presence of a casino, they argue, will devastate the community by attracting undesirable businesses, greatly increase crime, and create a rash of gambling addicts who will ruin their lives and families by spending all their money on games of chance. While all of these concerns have their merits, I believe they are wildly exaggerated. With the right protections in place, gambling is no different from any other form of entertainment.
Hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans already patronize race tracks and riverboat casinos every year. Every weekend at Arlington Park, friends and families place a few bets and enjoy horse races, good food and live music. The overwhelming majority of them go home without emptying their bank accounts or becoming gambling addicts. Yes, they may lose money, but no more than they would have spent at Six Flags or a Cubs game. In fact, there is no substantive difference between spending $100 at a professional baseball game and $100 at a casino, except that at a casino you have a chance of coming home with more money than when you arrived.
As for concern over compulsive gamblers, I suspect the percentage of them is no higher than those who are alcoholics, compulsive eaters or shopaholics. Perhaps the State of Illinois should ban shopping, since there are people who max out their credit cards and go bankrupt because they buy too many expensive shoes. For Illinois casinos, at least, there is a list of “self-excluded” people who are banned from entering riverboats in the state, and the penalties for marketing to them are severe. In May 2008, Hollywood Casino in Aurora was fined $800,000 for mailing promotional material to 146 “self-excluded” people.
Fears that casinos increase crime are largely unfounded. In 2010, for example, the city of Las Vegas had lower burglary, larceny and motor vehicle crime rates than Chicago, Dallas, Miami or Oklahoma City. Las Vegas was not even in the top 50 for U.S. cities with a population of 250,000 or greater when ranked by larceny rate, and it was 25th on the list in terms of violent crime, behind even Milwaukee. There are, by the way, 20 cities in Wisconsin with at least one casino, and robbery, violent crime, and motor vehicle theft rates in that state have declined every year since 2006.
Moreover, the economic benefits of a casino are many. A Rockford casino would employ dozens of local residents, and visitors from outside the city would fuel their cars at our gas stations, eat at our restaurants, take in shows at our theaters, and perhaps even stay at hotels in the area. It will allow Rockford to compete with Dubuque, Iowa, Beloit (once the Ho-Chunk casino opens), Wis., and Elgin, Ill., as an entertainment destination in the region. A casino is not a cure-all for our economic ills, but there are plenty of reasons to include one among other local businesses.
Fundamentally, I support a casino coming to Rockford because I believe a person should be able to spend his or her own money on entertainment of his or her own choice. Let those who are opposed to gambling refrain from gambling, and allow the rest of us the freedom to choose for ourselves.
Michael Kleen is a local author, historian, and owner of Black Oak Media. He holds a master’s degree in history and master’s degree in education. Read his previous columns online at makleen.com.
From the May 30-June 5, 2012, issue