Powerful Chicago Alderman Pat O’Connor Says Time for City to Legalize Video Gaming Terminals

Posted on: February 12, 2019, 07:55h. 

Last updated on: February 12, 2019, 07:55h.

Longtime Chicago Alderman Pat O’Connor (D-40th Ward) says it’s time for the city to embrace video gaming terminals (VGTs) and reap the financial benefits of regulated gambling.

Chicago casino gambling Rahm Emanuel
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel says gambling machines aren’t the answer to the city’s massive financial woes. (Image: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

O’Connor, who is Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s floor leader in the City Council, has been a steadfast ally of the mayor. But his decision to support VGTs is in stark contrast with the city’s chief executive.

The alderman has served on City Council for nearly 36 years and hasn’t publicly supported gambling until now. O’Connor says if Chicagoans are accepting of VGTs, then city government should regulate the machines.

“While a casino is certainly something that people are looking at, that’s several years away,” O’Connor told the Chicago Sun-Times this week. “This is a much more immediate potential.”

O’Connor, who also chairs the City Council Finance Committee, says the gaming tax revenue could be used to address the city’s dire pension program. “It is a revenue source that, right now, is going on under our noses untapped,” he said.

Regulate and Tax

Chicagoans know that video gaming machines are already widespread across the city. The “sweepstakes” devices found in gas station convenience stores, laundromats, and bars and restaurants payout everything from store credit to cold, hard cash — the latter being illegal.

O’Connor says regulating VGTs would allow the city to also tax winnings.

It’s not a panacea. But most people are saying minimally, you’d be looking at $80 million a year as a potential income,” O’Connor explained. “The Council might disagree with me. The mayor certainly disagrees with me. But factually speaking, that is a legitimate place to look.”

Democrats strongly control Chicago. Of the 50 City Council seats, 49 are Democrats, one an Independent, and one a Republican.

There are more than a dozen candidates fighting to become Emanuel’s successor, who isn’t seeking a third time after this year. Whoever wins will almost certainly be a Democrat. The last non-Democrat to hold the office was William Hale Thompson in the 1920s.

Pension Problem

Chicago has more than its fair share of problems. Along with violence, one of the most significant hurdles politicians are trying to overcome is the Windy City’s escalating underfunded pension program.

It’s a problem not isolated to Chicago, but Illinois as a whole. The state’s unfunded pension liability number stands at $133 billion.

For Chicago, Forbes retirement writer Elizabeth Bauer said recently, “There is no realistic solution to Chicago’s pension underfunding that doesn’t involve benefit cuts.”

Emanuel had requested City Council issue as much as $10 billion in pension obligation bonds to provide immediate capital. He later said he would leave the decision to his successor, who will be elected this November.

The mayor has long opposed gambling, but slightly eased his position late last year when he called on the Illinois General Assembly to legalize recreational marijuana and commercial casinos.

“If the state goes down that path, those resources can and should be used to further solidify our pensions without asking more of Chicago taxpayers,” Emanuel stated. “If we take all of these steps — amending the constitution to issuing bonds to a casino to recreational marijuana, we will dramatically reduce what is asked of our taxpayers.”