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Cook might bet on taxing slot machines, video gambling

Monday, October 15, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick and Bill Ruthhart

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is considering a new tax on every slot machine and video poker game in the county as she puts the final touches on the budget proposal she will present Thursday, aides said.

Owners of gambling devices would be required to buy an $800 sticker to place on each machine. Next year, the tax could generate a bit more than $1 million, a relatively small sum in comparison to the $115 million hole Preckwinkle must plug to balance her budget.

The slot machine tax is in keeping with the same philosophy Preckwinkle applied last week to a potential tax on guns and bullets — a way to generate money to help the county deal with problems caused by a particular product.

In the case of guns and ammunition, the county spends millions on its Health and Hospitals System to treat people who have been shot, and millions more at the courts and jail to prosecute and jail some of the people who did the shooting.

When it comes to gambling, Preckwinkle’s aides cite studies that conclude compulsive gamblers often commit crimes to support their habit. Such people sometimes are problem drinkers too, and that can lead to costs to the health system, said Owen Kilmer, a Preckwinkle spokesman.

Rivers Casino in Des Plaines — the only casino in Cook County — currently has 1,044 gambling machines, according to the Illinois Gaming Board’s most recent monthly report. Under Preckwinkle’s proposal, the casino would pay more than $800,000 in taxes to the county on top of the bevy of taxes it already pays to the state and local governments.

The Illinois Riverboat Gambling Act specifically bans a whole host of additional taxes being levied on casinos by other tax entities. Dennis Culloton, spokesman for Rivers Casino, declined to comment on the legality of Preckwinkle’s plan.

“This is the first we’re hearing of this,” he said, “and we’ll respond after we get a chance to review the proposal.”

Kilmer said that Preckwinkle’s proposal has been run by the county state’s attorney’s office, and lawyers there believe it would pass legal muster. The county would use its so-called home-rule authority to impose the tax, and argue that it does not fall under the casino tax ban.

Some home-rule cities and villages have started to charge fees ranging from $250 to $500 per machine per year, said Zack Stamp, a lobbyist for the Illinois Coin Machine Operators Association.

Stamp said video poker operators had braced for “a barrage of fees” from the communities that issue the liquor licenses that allow establishments to offer the games, but didn’t expect a county to levy a tax on all games in its jurisdiction. Particularly not in Cook, Stamp said, where county commissioners voted to opt out of the video poker law and ban the games in unincorporated areas.

“Taxing all of the games in a county raises a novel question we’ll have to look into,” Stamp said.

State Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, a champion of gambling expansion, also said he was surprised.

“I find it ironic that the same county board that prohibited video gaming in unincorporated areas of the county has decided to make some money off of the video gaming devices where they can’t prohibit them,” Lang said. “I find it unusual and interesting.”

Lang said he was most concerned that an additional $800 charge per machine could eat into additional revenue bars and restaurants would use to improve their businesses and hire more employees.

“This additional tax on games might have a chilling effect on economic growth and jobs within Cook County,” Lang said.

Kilmer downplayed the financial burden of such a tax, pointing to  large take each slot machine at Rivers Casino brings in after paying out winners. During the last 12 months, each of Rivers’ slot machines has averaged $768 in revenue per day — or $280,000 per machine a year — according to figures reported to the gaming board.

Video gambling went live in Illinois last week, but in Cook County, so far only 47 establishments have received licenses for the games while another 317 have applications pending with the gaming board.

Under the state’s Video Gaming Act, each establishment is allowed to have up to five video poker machines. The games are owned by operators, who split the games’ profits with establishment owners after paying a 30 percent tax to the state.

Gov. Pat Quinn has blocked a gambling expansion push, including a measure that would have allowed new casinos in Chicago and south suburban Cook County. A casino in Chicago could end up being owned by the city, and Kilmer said the county proposal would exempt governments that own the machines.

County commissioners declined to comment on the gambling machine tax, saying they wanted to see more details.


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