Tuesday, March 29, 2011

House passes smoking exemption for casinos

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois gamblers may soon be permitted to smoke in the state’s riverboat casinos.

House Bill 1965, which passed in the House today on a 62-52 vote, would give casinos an exemption to the state's smoking ban, as long as the nearest neighboring state does not have a ban. If a nearby state adopts a ban, the casinos closest to it would lose the exemption.

Chicago Democratic Rep. Daniel Burke, the sponsor of the bill, said Illinois’ casinos have been consistent contributors of revenue for the state, and Illinois can no longer ignore declining gaming revenues. “If we’re serious about the budget crisis here in Illinois, let’s be real. This is not about the smoking issue. This is about the money,” he said.

A 2010 report from the legislature’s Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability found that gross income for Illinois riverboats has dropped about 28 percent since the ban was put in place.

“Several factors have contributed to the dramatic turnaround in riverboat figures over the last three fiscal years. These factors include the struggling economy, increased competition from other states and the effects of the graduated tax structure. However, the numbers continue to suggest that the biggest contributor to the drop in Illinois casino revenues is the indoor smoking ban,” the report says.

Opponents of the bill say it is unfair to subject casinos employees to secondhand smoke, and policies that discourage smoking actually do more to address the state’s budget shortfall by helping to reduce health care costs. They say restaurants and bars could make the same argument that the smoking ban has hurt their businesses, and giving casinos an exemption could open the door to a much larger rollback of the smoking ban.

Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, said while health concerns are important, the economy is also a pressing issue, and Illinois casinos should be allowed a level playing field to compete with facilities in states without a ban. He added that as soon as those states adopt a ban, Illinois should eliminate the exemption. The legislation faces an uphill battle.

Senate President John Cullerton has stated his opposition to the bill on several occasions. “We have votes on everything … so of course we’ll have a committee hearing. People will testify, and we’ll have votes.” He added, “I’m opposed to it.”

Gov. Pat Quinn told Chicago reporters today that he is also opposed to the measure.

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