Updated: 5:41 p.m.
Could this be the year Chicago finally gets approval to operate its own casino?
Outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel hopes so as he prepares to leave office later this month. So, he’s using the potential Chicago casino as leverage in negotiations over a key piece of Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s agenda.
At a House committee hearing Thursday, a lobbyist for the mayor’s office testified that the city would support Pritzker’s call for legalized sports gambling as part of a bill that would allow for a Chicago-run casino.
“The city of Chicago supports sports wagering and the legalization of it within a comprehensive amendment that provides for a publicly-owned Chicago casino license,” said Derek Blaida, a lobbyist for the city of Chicago.
The city’s request is in line with a controversial speech Emanuel gave in December about solving the city’s underfunded pension crisis. He urged state lawmakers to approve a Chicago casino to help prop up City Hall’s massively underfunded retirement systems. Per state law, any revenue from a Chicago casino is supposed to go toward the police and fire pensions.
State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, asked Blaida if the governor is aware of the city’s mandate. Blaida would only say that discussions with the governor’s office continue.
In a statement, Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh told WBEZ the governor is “committed to responsibly legalizing sports betting,” but didn’t directly address whether he would tie it to a Chicago casino bill.
“Additionally, as discussions with working groups continue, the administration looks forward to reviewing other gaming measures that increase revenue for the state this legislative session,” she said.
Pritzker warned against this exact approach less than three months ago in his budget address to lawmakers. Saying previous attempts to expand gambling in Illinois failed because they would “get bogged down in regional disputes and a Christmas tree approach,” Pritzker called sports betting “different” since it was only recently legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court.
It’s unclear if tying a Chicago casino to Pritzker’s legalized sports gambling push has the blessing of Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, who takes office May 20. A spokeswoman did not immediately respond to WBEZ’s request for comment. Lightfoot voiced support for a city-run casino during the campaign.
In his state budget proposal, Pritzker called for establishing 20 sports gambling licenses in Illinois. At $10 million per license, Pritzker is counting on that $200 million to help balance next year’s budget.
He estimates Illinois could bring in $17 million in new revenue next year from sports betting, and once it’s really up and running, it could bring in up to $136 million per year to state coffers.
A Chicago casino is a perennial issue in Springfield.
In 2012, the House and Senate approved a gambling expansion package that included adding five new casinos around the state, including in Chicago. But then-Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed the bill because he didn’t think the measure included enough oversight, saying it contained “loopholes for mobsters.” Quinn wanted the measure to ban casino managers and licensees from making campaign contributions and for the Chicago casino to go through the state’s contracting process.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.