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redeyechicago.com

Kass: Mayor's shell game should have taxpayers clutching their wallets

John Kass

May 17, 2013

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I've got a feeling that in some weird, alternate universe, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is making a decent living playing hide-the-pea.

You know the game, don't you?

First, you put your money down. Then Mr. Misdirection places a pea under one of three cups. He begins moving them faster and faster, talking and talking and talking, until his hands stop. Then it's time to find that pea.

Usually, you lose.

But in the Chicago political universe, the pea isn't exactly a pea. Taxpayers don't lose their mortgages and rent money and their kids' college funds over some stupid peas.

They'll lose it at a casino.

A big, fat casino, controlled by Rahm Emanuel, generating millions of dollars in cash each year. A casino with no troublesome city inspector general or state gaming regulators to look over his shoulder.

So who'll get the contracts, and how, and who gets hired and who doesn't, and what about the guys behind the guys? Forget about it. If City Hall runs the casino and hires a management company to operate it, think of that information as just a handful of lost peas.

The Rahmfather deftly hid his best pea Thursday, talking and talking about a $1.1 billion plan to refurbish Navy Pier, while also building two hotels and a 10,000-seat basketball arena for DePaul University near McCormick Place.

There were grand plans, promises of jobs and revenue, artist renderings, the entire package. Except for one thing.

There wasn't an artist rendering of the City Hall casino — a proposal that's working its way through the state legislature in Springfield.

But reporters asked him anyway.

"Well, since it has been 20 years of debating in Springfield whether we get a casino," the Rahmfather said. "I think before anybody talks about where, the most important location is Springfield. We've got to get it done. That's what I'm focused on."

That's very nice, mayor. But the rest of Illinois should be focusing on three questions:

No. 1. Where's the oversight?

Emanuel has worked to gut Inspector General Joe Ferguson's powers to investigate corruption at City Hall. And the mayor plays hide-the-ethics-pea with reporters every day. He thinks he's being slick. But he's losing credibility fast.

Emanuel doesn't want to be bothered by the state gaming board. The board's true leverage over casinos is the threat to yank their state licenses. But if the Rahmfather's casino authority is woven into political maneuvering in Springfield that includes much-needed state pension reform, Gov. Pat Quinn might be compelled to sign it. And the deal could go through.

And then no one will be looking into the Chicago casino books but the Rahmfather himself.

"He didn't advertise putting a casino there near McCormick Place, but that's where this is leading," reform Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, told me. "The basketball arena, the hotels, you see where it's going.

"Yet we haven't yet had a public policy debate on oversight and possible corruption," Waguespack said. "And Chicago needs that kind of debate."

Question No. 2. With all of Chicago's other problems, is it smart to spend money on more hotels and casinos?

How about spending money on much-needed police?

When people are beaten by thug mobs downtown or killed in the neighborhoods, the last thing the victims think about are fancy hotel developments and basketball arenas. They're probably thinking: Where are the cops?

"We need more police in our streets," Ald. Robert Fioretti, 2nd, said Thursday. "We're closing Chicago Public Schools, and we're now cutting adrift our retirees' health care programs. I think people ought to look at how we're spending public money and for what purpose. This (proposed development) must produce an overwhelming benefit to the citizens of Chicago, and I don't see that with the money being spent here."

And question No. 3: Why push for a DePaul basketball arena at McCormick Place?

That's nowhere near the DePaul campus. Students would have to take public transportation or drive, and then shell out cash to park.

United Center owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Rocky Wirtz offered to let DePaul play on the West Side for free. DePaul turned them down.

I don't think this has anything to do with basketball. Rahm needs that basketball arena as a music venue to make the casino work. And who'll pull in the cash promoting concerts there? The mayor's enemies, or his friends?

There is an alternative. Last year, DePaul was looking at the roughly 22-acre Finkl & Sons Co. site in Lincoln Park. DePaul students wouldn't have to drive. They could walk. The rest of us could take the "L."

But Ald. Michele Smith, 43rd, doesn't like my idea.

"If you were to say, 'Let's put a stadium over here on Finkl Steel,' and you create some enormous 3,000-place parking lot, I mean, really? Is that the best way to use space?" said Smith. "Having it here in Lincoln Park is probably not the right match. We certainly don't want it in the heart of Lincoln Park. It's just too darn crowded here."

The Rahmfather vows that if he gets his Chicago casino, he'll put the extra cash toward school modernization and infrastructure. Didn't politicians sell the state lottery years ago to us chumbolones by saying it would pay for education?

When politicians make bold "vows" in Illinois, taxpayers just might want to forget the peas.

And grab their wallets instead.

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass