The man Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan once called “Governor No-No” now backs a Chicago casino — if it means it’ll help his beloved racetrack industry.
Former Gov. Jim Edgar on Wednesday told the Sun-Times he doesn’t oppose a Chicago casino “anymore.”
“I wasn’t excited when they first did gaming in Illinois, but they have it, and it didn’t have the social problems,” Edgar said. “The arguments against it I think are gone and times have changed.”
The Downstate Republican historically was a strong opponent of land-based casinos.
“I don’t want it in any part of the state, whether it’s controlled by people from Las Vegas, whether it’s controlled by Indians, I don’t want it,” he said in 1992. “Even if it’s controlled by my best friends, I don’t want it.”
That prompted Madigan to dub Edgar a “no-no governor” and former Mayor Richard M. Daley to accuse the Republican of being anti-Chicago.
It was one of many feuds the Chicago Democrat had with Edgar — on everything from Daley’s failed proposal for a Lake Calumet Airport, money for a Chicago trolley system, land-based casinos, riverboat gambling and money for Chicago public schools.
“Chicago is still part of Illinois. Would you please tell him (Edgar) that?” Daley fumed to reporters in 1994. “When it comes to the circulator, crime, boats or casinos, it’s always, ‘Wait. Chicago shouldn’t get it.’ But, when the conventions come here, they all want the money.”
Edgar always denied being anti-Chicago. And as for a casino in the city, the horse-racing enthusiast says there are “more pluses than minuses now” than there were 25 years ago.
“I think Chicago needs the revenue and the state could use the revenue,” Edgar said. “And politically, I think you’re going to have to do that for the tracks to get theirs.”
Edgar’s name — and his horses — were mentioned on Wednesday morning during a lengthy Illinois House subcommittee about a gaming expansion bill. An amendment to the measure failed in a House committee in May, in part because of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s opposition.
“If there is gaming in Chicago, it would have to be under a different tax and revenue-sharing structure where more of the money comes back to local government,” an Emanuel adviser said in May.
“The way it’s worded now, the money goes to the state and to the casinos, leaving the local municipality to deal with all of the downside” without the resources to do it.
Victoria Watkins, a senior adviser to Mayor Emanuel, told the committee that part of the issue is a $120 million fee that Chicago would have to cough up. The city would prefer that casino managers pay the “pre-game operational costs,” since the Chicago casino would be publicly owned.
“Based on the … fee, the proposed reconciliation payment and cost associated with opening a facility, it seems like it to us that it may not be financially feasible under those specific conditions for a successful Chicago casino,” Watkins said. “Also potential casino financing is exacerbated by land acquisition, environmental and transportation costs as well as other necessary expenditures before any temporary or permanent casino could be constructed or operated.”
Among other things, the measure would create six new casinos, including one in Chicago; expand existing riverboats; allow for increased winnings on video gaming; and allow for additional gambling, including slot machines, at horse racing tracks. Profits from a Chicago casino would go to police and fire pensions.
As for Edgar, the former two-term governor no longer races his more than 20 horses in Illinois, because the payout is much better in neighboring Indiana.
“Indiana’s got a great program and I mean, they’re very nice over there but it’s just too bad we didn’t keep up in Illinois, and you know, it used to be a great industry in this state,” Edgar said. “Unfortunately the leadership hasn’t paid attention in the last few years to get something done.”
He credited that “failed leadership” to Gov. Bruce Rauner and the legislative leaders, whom he said have stressed the need for jobs but haven’t looked at gaming as part of the solution.
Racetrack advocates at the committee said over the “past two decades or a little bit more” wagering on horse racing in Illinois has decreased from $1.2 billion down to $586 million in 2017. The reason, they say, is the racetracks don’t have a competitive product to offer. Those advocates say “racinos” with table games will save the industry.
Edgar, who has advocated for a gaming expansion bill to help racetracks for years — but has not been paid as a lobbyist in the effort — said the current legislation would bring thousands of jobs for both thoroughbred and harness racing.
“It’s unfortunate and I keep hoping maybe we’ll get something and someday I don’t have to drive 250 miles one way to see my horses race,” Edgar said, adding horse racing has been caught up in Chicago’s casino proposal.
“Unfortunately it’s tied to things that get held up for other things and it becomes a Christmas tree. So I’m hopeful that next year. It’s like the Cubs used to say. Next year,” Edgar said. “I hope it happens.”