Illinois State Rep. Bob Rita wants the state legislature to take a serious look at online gaming and sports betting next year, and for that he needs allies.

Bob Rita

Bob Rita wants to ensure that this year’s gambling expansion effort does not end up on the scrapheap like those of previous years. Meanwhile, the Illinois Racing Board is planning expansion of its own, without the legislature’s help. (Image: E Jason Wambsgans/ Chicago Tribune)

The Blue Island Democrat will lead a series of hearings in a bid to build consensus on online poker, online casino, daily fantasy sports, and sports betting ahead of the next legislative session. He will also look to gauge whether there is an appetite in the legislature for casino expansion.

Rita has been the chair of the Illinois House subcommittee on Gaming, Sales, and Other Taxes since 2013. Since then he has spearheaded several attempts to expand gambling, which he believes is the key to fixing the state’s alarming budget deficit, but to no avail.

In 2014, he was behind a doomed attempt to legalize online gaming, while similar efforts in 2016 and 2017 also failed to gain traction. On the last day of the 2017 legislative session, out of the blue, the Illinois Senate voted to legalize online casino and poker, but the House had no opportunity to vote on the matter.

Shifting Landscapes

Rita has also spearheaded a longstanding push to authorize six new riverboat casinos in central Chicago, some of its southern suburbs, Rockford, and Danville, while authorizing slots for the state’s ailing racetracks.

“As I have said from the beginning in working on this issue, gaming expansion presents many tremendous opportunities to create revenue, jobs and economic growth in Illinois,” Rita said in a press release on Tuesday.

“The gaming landscape has changed significantly since I took on this issue five years ago, and I want to use these hearings to understand how those changes present new opportunities for us to put the right package together as we look to meet budget needs and provide a spark for our economy,” he added.

Desperate Condition

Meanwhile, the state’s Racing Board is plowing ahead with plans to introduce historical horse racing machines at the racetracks. These allow gamblers to place bets on races that have already been run by playing reruns from around the world, while concealing the names of the horses and dates and locations of the races.

There are legal questions about whether this would constitute gambling expansion, and therefore whether the board has the authority to authorize the machines without going through the legislature. But according to board member Tom McCauley, desperate times call for desperate measures.

“The Illinois horse racing industry is in a desperate economic condition. It is not hyperbolic to say that its viability is in doubt,” he said.