How Illinois Bet on Video Gambling and Lost
By Jason Grotto, Sandhya Kambhampati and Dan Mihalopoulos
With the last streaks of daylight fading on a mild October evening, the cars pulled up in waves at Piero’s Italian Cuisine, an old-school Las Vegas hotspot known for its osso buco.
Cadillacs with tinted windows. Taxis and rideshares. A black Bentley limousine and a white minivan. Men and women emerged, most casually dressed, there for the first of a series of posh, private events hosted by the video gambling industry during the 2018 Global Gaming Expo, North America’s largest gambling trade show. They included gambling executives, lobbyists — and about a dozen Illinois lawmakers.
The politicians had flown to Las Vegas to learn about the latest developments in the gambling industry and to discuss its expansion in Illinois, including proposals that would, among other items, license six new casinos in the state, legalize sports betting and increase the wagering limit on video gambling machines. The plans, lawmakers have said, would brighten the state’s gloomy financial picture without having to raise taxes or cut spending.
It wouldn’t be the first time Illinois has placed a big bet on gambling. Nearly a decade ago, state lawmakers legalized video gambling. Today, more than 30,000 video slot and poker machines operate outside casinos here, more than any other state in the country.
The machines, which legislators said would generate billions of dollars in revenue for the cash-strapped state, are spread out over 6,800 establishments, dotting highways and towns from Winnebago County in the north to Alexander County in the south. Step outside the borders of Chicago, where video gambling remains illegal, and you will see feather flags, billboards and neon signs advertising video slots and poker in bars and restaurants, truck stops and storefront gambling parlors.
Illinois now has more locations to legally place a bet than Nevada.
But the meteoric rise of video gambling has proven to be little more than a botched money grab, according to a ProPublica Illinois investigation of a system that has gone virtually unchecked since its inception. Based on dozens of interviews, a review of thousands of pages of state financial records and an analysis of six years of gambling data, this unprecedented examination found that far from helping to pull the state out of its financial tailspin, the legalization of video gambling instead accelerated it and saddled Illinois with new, unfunded regulatory and social costs.