- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 28, 2017

June 25, 2017

The Rockford Register Star

Gaming has changed in Illinois; is adding casinos a viable option?

We’ve been staunch supporters of bringing a casino to Rockford but wonder whether the window of opportunity has closed because of the proliferation of other gaming options.

The gambling landscape has changed significantly since the Illinois General Assembly approved bills in 2012 and 2013 that would have allowed casinos in five more communities, including Rockford.

The governor who vetoed those bills, Pat Quinn, is gone. More important to gambling interests is the explosion of video gaming.

Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, thinks the market is saturated. He points out that admissions in the existing casinos are down 3 million per year since video gaming began.

Yet state Sen. Dave Syverson thinks Illinois can reclaim some of the $1.5 billion that is leaving the state if casinos are built in border communities such as Rockford. Plus, upfront fees and taxes from new casinos would help Illinois raise much-needed revenue to plug its budget hole. Of course, there is no budget - just a big fiscal hole.

There’s also legislation to allow online gambling and then there’s a bill that would legalize fantasy sports betting. The online gaming bill passed the Senate, 42-10, in May.

There are upfront fees and ongoing taxes with those ventures as well. It seems lawmakers are just as addicted to the prospect of winning big to fill budget holes as gamblers are to hit it big for their own wallets.

Existing casinos see fantasy sports as competition, but would like online gambling because it opens up a new market for them and helps them offset any losses they may see because of fantasy sports betting.

Fantasy sports betting has been going on for at least three years and a 2015 advisory opinion by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said the practice was illegal under state gambling law, hence the legislation to legalize and tax it.

There are 24,000 video gaming machines in Illinois. Revenue from the machines has increased steadily since video gaming started operating legally in 2012. There are 97 businesses that operate 453 video gaming terminals in Rockford.

The video gaming operators have a bill of their own, Senate Bill 209, which increases betting limits and payouts and adds other incentives.

A casino would likely take some of the more than $350 million that is wagered at video terminals in Rockford. How much and how that would affect the restaurants and taverns that rely on that extra revenue to meet expenses is a question that deserves an answer.

Syverson is the sponsor of Senate Bill 7, which calls for the authorization of up to six land-based casinos, including one in Rockford, and includes incentives to existing casinos, video gaming and horse racing. The legislation passed the Senate, 33-24, in May but has been held up in the House where Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, is the sponsor.

Because of all the projected new revenue in the different gaming bills, it’s a pretty good bet that there will be moves to include them into an overall budget package. It’s difficult to envision a scenario where those bills would advance independently, but stranger things have happened in Illinois.

Illinois is looking at so many different gambling options you have to wonder: Where does it stop? Remember when the riverboats had to cruise? Now they don’t have to leave the docks and the new legislation allows for land-based casinos.

Remember when there were limits on how much you could lose? Now you can lose your shirt. Remember when it didn’t seem like there was a video gaming establishment on every corner? Now communities such as Rockford are starting to resemble Pottersville.

A casino would add at least 400 construction jobs and 1,300 to 1,400 permanent jobs. It would pump an estimated $7 million to $12 million a year into the local economy, which is why the Editorial Board has for years supported Rockford’s casino efforts.

Is it too late or can a casino still be a good thing for Rockford and for Illinois?

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June 27, 2017

Illinois has to consider consolidation

The (Springfield) State Journal-Register

If a service is needed, the people who provide it shouldn’t have to point out how important it is.

So it was telling that the Township Officials of Illinois released a statement Monday on what it sees as the good townships provide - shortly after a House committee discussed a measure that would make it easier for residents to consolidate local units of government.

The statement touted that townships maintain 71,000 miles of roads in the state and run programs that provide food, shelter and emergency general assistance for those in need. The association argued that taxpayers would pay more if the duties of smaller governments were shifted to larger units because they have higher cost structures.

But the statement reflects the mindset found at all levels of Illinois government: If change happens, just make sure it doesn’t affect me (and the unit of government I work for). It’s this “me first” culture that has permeated Illinois government and marooned the state in a financial morass.

The mindset needs to be: Let’s implement changes that are best for the taxpayers. There is not one consistent, convincing argument for having so many units of government. There are about 7,000 units of government in Illinois, by far the most units of any state. It’s well past time consolidation efforts start in earnest, and the state’s 1,400 townships are a good place to begin.

Most people live in a municipality that could take care of township duties; those in unincorporated areas could turn to the county. Why keep a third level of government, except to squeeze more money from residents and confuse them about where to turn when a problem needs to be addressed? No matter how frugal a township might be, it’s another tax residents pay for salaries and benefits, equipment and buildings. If absorbed by a larger unit, those costs could be greatly reduced.

Townships should not be the only units scrutinized; education is ripe for some streamlining too. There are about 100 high-school only districts that overlap geographically with about 370 districts that serve just K-8 students, according to the Metropolitan Planning Council. Consolidating those would result in a minimum of 100 fewer high-paying administrative jobs.

Property tax relief has been one of the sticking points in the ongoing budget impasse that is nearing the critical June 30 deadline. If a spending and revenue plan isn’t agreed upon, the new fiscal year that starts Saturday will be the third consecutive year without a permanent budget. “Dire” doesn’t begin to describe the consequences.

It will require a long-term effort, but government consolidation can provide the tax relief lawmakers want and residents are demanding.

To start: Gov. Bruce Rauner should sign into law Senate Bill 3, which already has passed both chambers. SB 3 would make it easier for local governments to consolidate or be eliminated if the taxing bodies provide duplicate or obsolete services that can be effectively absorbed by another unit. It would improve the current process of eliminating a local government (it’s close to impossible). To detractors who say governments wouldn’t take such steps, we point to DuPage, Lake and McHenry counties, which already have permission to consolidate certain governmental units and are actively working to do so.

Lawmakers should next approve House Bill 4067, which was introduced by House Minority Leader Jim Durkin and is in the House Rules Committee. It proposes creating the Citizens Empowerment Act, which would establish requirements that, if adhered to, would allow registered voters to petition for a referendum to dissolve a unit of local government. It takes a step beyond SB 3 by allowing the voters themselves to initiate consolidation efforts.

Illinoisans are weary of politics as usual, and they are tired of paying high property taxes. Making it easier to consolidate governments could effectively address both issues. If taxes are an impediment to getting a budget agreement, these consolidation efforts are no-brainers to sign into law.

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June 27, 2017

The (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald

Minimum wage confusion should be avoided

Ken Jarosch is a small-business owner whose livelihood and those he employs would be affected by an ill-timed and too generous increase in the minimum wage.

He’s not operating a fast-food chain known nationally or worldwide. He owns a bakery in Elk Grove Village, and this is an issue that hits home.

As he explained to Daily Herald Business Writer Anna Marie Kukec in a story published Monday, additional labor expenses would be passed on to consumers or contained by reducing hours for employees.

“Closing early each night virtually eliminates the need for high school-aged employees,” Jarosch said of his part-timers who make the current minimum wage of $8.25 an hour. “We would hire more mature help who don’t have soccer practices, spring musicals, debate tournaments or cheerleading. Eliminating the employment of high-schoolers would reduce our training time and costs.”

Balance that with the arguments for an increase that the current minimum wage is not a livable wage for adults who are working similar jobs and that’s where you have the dilemma - one that politicians on all levels have been debating.

It’s timely this week because a new Cook County ordinance goes into effect Saturday that increases the minimum wage to $10 and goes up again to $13 by 2020.

We’ve criticized Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle for not involving the suburbs in the discussions surrounding the increase before passing it. (A similar measure passed in the city of Chicago.)

And so it’s no surprise, really, that the bulk of the communities in the Northwest suburbs of Cook County have opted out. That’s their right and we understand why they did. In fact, of 134 municipalities in suburban Cook County, more than two-thirds have opted out of the wage increase and a mandate that employees receive up to five paid sick days. That, however, leaves a patchwork of laws regarding the minimum wage across the region.

It’s a disparity that’s not helpful to anyone. It’s clear to us that this issue should be resolved at the state level and that any increases be fully debated and slowly implemented.

“I think it’s regrettable you get this kind of confusion or inconsistency,” said Michael LeRoy, a professor at the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations.

Change is hard. But handled in a more uniform and transparent way in this case can make it a little easier for both business owners and employees.

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