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Illinois Lawmakers Debate Casino Bill for Education

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Illinois lawmakers may vote this week on a bill that would permit casino gambling in Chicago as a way of generating money for education.

Tax revenues from the venture, as outlined by its prime advocate, Mayor Richard M. Daley, would be used to bankroll capital projects and technology for the schools.

The proposal faces stiff opposition, with observers expressing skepticism that the bill will pass during the lame-duck session. Nor do they give it much of a chance for success in its present form when the legislature, with a new Republican majority in the Senate, begins its 1993 session in January.

"You're looking at a political game,'' said Lee N. Betterman, the president of the Illinois Education Association. "We all know ahead of time this isn't going to happen.''

Gov. Jim Edgar has vowed to veto the measure because it would obligate the state if the casino does not yield sufficient funds, according to his spokesman, Gary Mack.

Despite the obstacles facing the Illinois proposal, however, experts in the field are laying odds that it is only a matter of time before states across the country build casinos on the promise of using the proceeds for the schools.

"By 2000, almost all of the states are going to have casino referendums,'' predicted Vicki Abt, a professor of sociology and American studies at Pennsylvania State University.

"The only way to soften attitudes against gambling in Protestant America,'' she said, "is to use that money for public good.''

A Piece of the Take

Illinois would not be the first state to dedicate casino taxes to education. Nevada long has earmarked a share of its slot-machine take to higher education, which received $38.7 million last year, according to the Nevada Gaming Commission.

Moreover, Illinois itself has earmarked riverboat-gambling taxes for schools. In fiscal 1992, $8 million went into the fund, and officials estimate education's share at $30 million this year.

But this latest attempt to link casino gambling to education is by far the most ambitious.

Mr. Daley proposed that the legislature authorize $1 billion in bonds for school construction and renovation. The bonds would be paid off by a 10 percent tax on wagering revenues.

"This project will do for our children what the Illinois lottery and the riverboats failed to do--provide new money for the schools,'' Mayor Daley said at a press conference.

Supplementing or Replacing?

When proponents of state-run lotteries first pitched their schemes, they often did so with the promise of using the revenue to supplement education funding. What educators from Illinois to Florida learned, though, was that the money frequently ended up replacing state aid from the general fund.

Some educators and policymakers fear they may be setting themselves up for a similar disappointment.

"To make a phony promise that mirrors the lottery leaves a bad taste in people's mouths,'' said Rep. John J. McNamara, the chairman of the Illinois House Educational Finance Committee. "It is a stronger case to say we need the jobs and economic development.''

But Sen. Arthur L. Berman, the chairman of the Senate Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, said the fund would be isolated from the state general fund. "If the bonds are sold, the money is there,'' he said.

Many members of the education community are hedging their bets. While not enamored of the idea of funding education through casino receipts, they do not want to appear ungrateful for any new help.

"Impoverished folks have seldom turned down money from any source,'' said Wayne L. Sampson, the executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards.

Superintendent Arvid E. Nelson of Kankakee, who was one of four superintendents to appear with Mayor Daley at the press conference, said he wants the new funding primarily for technology.

"We need the money,'' Mr. Nelson said.

Mayor Daley is "looking at jobs, the welfare of the state, and the children,'' the superintendent added. "What is wrong with that? Why shouldn't Chicago get this, versus another state?''

For the past few years there has been talk of building casinos in Detroit, Milwaukee, and Windsor, Ontario. Each area wants to make sure it gets the best--and first--draw.

Meanwhile, riverboat gambling is spreading. Missouri voters this month approved waterborne games of chance, joining Iowa, Mississippi, and Illinois.

Conversely, Colorado voters rejected four measures that would have expanded casino gambling in that state. Two of the measures would have dedicated gaming revenue to education.

'Not a Good Idea'

Education experts who have questioned the wisdom of using lottery funds for education see little difference in using casino revenues.

"To earmark tax money generated from gambling is not a good idea, because it doesn't come anywhere near the amount needed,'' said John Myers, the director of education programs for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Moreover, he added, "the public has the impression they have solved the problem.''

When voters rejected a tax increase in Missouri in 1991, educators pointed to that very reason.

Now that voters in that state have agreed to riverboat gambling, educators worry that the public will make the same invalid assumption.

"Even by the most conservative estimates ... the new money isn't going to do it,'' said Joel Denney, the deputy superintendent of the Missouri education department.

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