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Preckwinkle targets video poker, slot machines for revenue

Monday, October 15, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is interested in introducing a special gambling tax on video poker and slot machines, to the tune of $800 per machine, as part of her larger budget proposal this week, the Sun-Times has learned.

In a brief phone call with the Sun-Times, Preckwinkle confirmed that she’s examining a gambling tax, including on the poker machines, but declined to provide specifics beyond that.

“There are a lot of things on the table and we haven’t put all of the revenue numbers together,” Preckwinkle said when reached at her home on Sunday. She referred all questions to her public relations staff, who in turn declined comment.

State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), who has long pushed for expanding gambling opportunities in the state, said he spoke with a county employee with knowledge of the budget plans, and said Preckwinkle’s team is not only looking at imposing a tax on video poker machines at establishments in Cook County but also the slot machines at Rivers Casino in suburban Des Plaines, also in the county.

“It’s all gaming devices — any video gaming in the bars as a result of them turning the switch finally and any of the slot machines at Rivers Casino,” Lang said, relaying what the county employee, whom he declined to identify, told him.

Lang said he’s been told that the county would tax the machines at $800 apiece.

Rivers Casino alone has more than 1,000 slot machines.

But just how lucrative a tax specifically on video poker machines might be is unclear, since there’s a ban on those machines in Chicago, in unincorporated Cook County and in more than 100 municipalities throughout the county.

Thom Serafin, a long-time lobbyist not involved in the proposal said: “The elephant in the room is that Chicago is out of this game. What kind of revenue can you expect when so many municipalities have opted out of it?”

Video poker wagering in restaurants, bars and truck stops went live last week — three years after the legislature and Gov. Pat Quinn signed off on the machines as a way to fund a $31 billion statewide construction program.

According to the Illinois Gaming Board, the state receives a 30 percent cut of the profits from each licensed video gaming terminal. Local governments that issue the liquor license for establishments with video gaming get a 5 percent chunk of the state money.

Lang said the intent of the measure was to boost capital development across the state and keep people in jobs in a lousy economy.

“If you tax it, it will slow growth,” he said.

Dennis Culloton, spokesman for Rivers Casino in Des Plaines — the only casino in Cook County — told the Sun-Times Sunday, “Our position is we don’t want to speculate at this point, so we can look at the proposal.”

He also wouldn’t comment on the legality of the tax Preckwinkle is eyeing.

But Zack Stamp, a lobbyist for the Illinois Coin Machine Operators Association, had no problem commenting on such a proposal.

“I don’t know if they can legally do that,” said Stamp.

“These businesses have made a substantial investment in this equipment with an understanding somewhat of what the tax target is going to be, but if you’re going to come back in and lop something like this on top of them, it’s just another hurdle to get a return on their investment,” said Stamp.

Preckwinkle will announce the details of her $3 billion spending plan for 2013 on Thursday, including details of how she’ll close a $115 million gap.

Lang also was scratching his head about why they’re looking to tax machines when, in 2009, the county board “opted out” of allowing video gambling in unincorporated stretches of the county.

“They passed an ordinance saying ‘we don’t want them.’ Now they want to tax the municipalities that do have them?”

The measure was passed before Preckwinkle was elected board president in 2010.

On Thursday, Preckwinkle will officially announce her 2013 spending plan. While she’s holding the line on property taxes and rolling back what’s left of an old penny-on-the-dollar sales tax hike, Preckwinkle’s staff has said a series of fees and special taxes may go up — or even be created.

Last week, as first reported by the Sun-Times, she floated the idea of a special county gun and bullet tax. But that so-called violence tax appears to be more message than a substantial money-maker. With the murder rate in Chicago up 25 percent over last year, the idea is to use such tax dollars to cover the costs of treating gunshot victims at the county-funded health and hospital system.

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