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Mixed reaction from commissioners on Cook County slot machine tax

Monday, October 15, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times
by LISA DONOVAN

Several Cook County commissioners aren’t ready to bet on Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s proposal to tax slot machines, to the tune of $800 per machine annually, as she looks to close a $115 million budget gap.


“I’m not a supporter of using gaming dollars to fund the government,” said Commissioner Gregg Goslin, a Northwest suburban Republican. “Philosophically, that’s where I’m at on it. I don’t think it’s a reliable, responsible way to fund public services. First off, it’s an unpredictable source of revenue. And it seems like we’re building up all these sin taxes — tobacco, alcohol and now gaming,” he said, referring to hikes in the alcohol and tobacco taxes. “It’s funding government on the backs of the vices of our society.”

With the county projecting revenues of $1.3 million from such a tax in 2013, it wouldn’t do much to close a $100-plus million budget gap for next year, he said.

Commissioner John Fritchey, a North Side Democrat, said he’d look at the proposed tax, but said he’s hoping to see some “appropriate” cuts to shore up costs.

“We need to be making sure we’re making appropriate cuts in the budget,” he said. “The last few years, we’ve transformed the image of county government, deciding government can perform through fiscal responsibility rather than continual revenue increases. I’m confident there are budgets of various county offices that need to be” cut, he said. “Every year we engage in the same dance of people saying there’s no room to cut, yet we continue to find areas to cut.”

Commissioner Liz Gorman, a suburban Republican whose district includes Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, could not be reached for comment.

Preckwinkle will release her roughly $3 billion budget plan on Thursday, which may include the proposal to tax the newly legalized video gambling machines in the state as well as the slot machines at the Rivers Casino, the sole casino in the county.

What would be taxable under the proposal she’s floating are the 1,000-plus slot machines at Rivers Casino. Her staff says the research they’ve done shows a single slot machine brings in more than $800 daily. Also subject to the tax would be video gambling machines that went live last week and will be allowed in restaurants, bars and truck stops. In 2009, the legislature and Gov. Pat Quinn signed off on the video gambling machines as a way to fund a $31 billion statewide construction program.

While Preckwinkle’s staff indicates they’re not going to rake in millions, revenues will follow gaming growth. But that could be limited. There are gambling bans in the city of Chicago, unincorporated Cook County and more than 100 municipalities in the county.

Regardless, those monies will be invested in the county’s public safety arm that may have to deal with the fallout from problem gambling.

“As gambling increases in Cook County with video poker in the early stages, there is a concern about a corresponding rise in compulsive gambling behavior which has a history of leading to criminal behavior,” Preckwinkle’s staff said in an emailed statement. “As many as one-half to two-thirds of compulsive gamblers have committed a crime to obtain gambling money. We believe the resources generated by this proposal will help us invest in our public safety system.”

But gaming experts and elected leaders are looking hard at the legality of the measure — most notably whether Cook County has the authority to impose such a tax.

The state’s gaming laws restrict taxation on those who hold licenses to the machines.

A Preckwinkle spokesman said in a statement: “We feel that state statute does not preempt our home rule authority.”

Zack Stamp, a lobbyist for the Illinois Coin Machine Operators Association, said: “it’s a good question, and something we’ll look into.”

He said other municipalities across the state have looked at a similar tax on machines of roughly $250 to $500 annually.

Preckwinkle’s staff has already said that some small fees and tax hikes are on the table as they cobble together the 2013 budget. But she’s holding the line on property taxes and rolling back what’s left of an old penny-on-the-dollar sales tax hike championed by her predecessor Todd Stroger, turning him in to a one-term county board president.

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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