AFTER just three years of riverboat gambling, Illinois has grown so dependent on casinos that its top elected officials are placing big political bets on a proposed $800-million-dollar gambling center for Chicago.
Since the first Illinois riverboat casino slipped from its berth in September 1991, the state and local governments have accepted more than $233 million in revenues from gaming tables. Nine gambling boats now ply rivers across the state.
Gov. Jim Edgar (R) and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (D) want to add another five vessels. They asked the State Assembly on March 7 to approve the construction of berths for casino barges and a vast entertainment complex on the Chicago River.
The barges symbolize how gambling interests are steadily making a solid place for their industry at the heart of the political agenda in Illinois. Although state law requires riverboats to deal only on the move, the gambling barges in Chicago would remain tied fast to the docks.
``A lot of people who have gambling licenses now are really part of an insiders' circle,'' says Tracy Litsey, executive director of Illinois Common Cause, which seeks to limit campaign contributions from the gambling industry.
Four members of the governor's reelection finance committee are prospective casino owners, according to Ms. Litsey.
The rapid rise of the casinos has sparked a state-wide petition drive by groups urging lawmakers to allow voters to have the final say about the expansion of the gambling industry.
``Our main point is really just to take this out of the back rooms and bring this to the people, because we don't believe the politicians are listening to the people,'' says Philip Crusius, coordinator of Concerned Citizens for Self-Determination in Arlington Heights, the site of a racetrack.
IN primary balloting last month, 14 cities, towns, and counties overwhelmingly approved referendums calling for grass-roots control over the growth of betting enterprises.
As in most parts of the United States, casino owners in Illinois can thank the church and state for the steady growth in gambling operations.
Over the past several years, a lottery sponsored by the state and bingo and ``Las Vegas Nights'' staged by churches have provided betting with a veneer of rectitude. Meanwhile, racetrack owners have cleared away many of the political and bureaucratic obstacles to gambling.
State leaders approved riverboat betting largely to shore up revenues undermined by the recent hard recession. But the gambling industry that was approved as a small palliative now has grown into a large and powerful force in Illinois politics, say opponents to gambling. With reelection campaigns approaching, both Governor Edgar and Mayor Daley apparently believe that approval of gambling in Chicago would mean big political payoffs.
Edgar, who plans to seek reelection in November, has repeatedly insisted that he is opposed to an expansion of gambling in Illinois. He has sought to justify the Chicago River initiative as an act of ``fairness,'' noting that Chicago was until recently legally barred from bidding for a riverboat license. He may be trying to counter opponents' claims that he is indifferent to the needs of the city.
Over the past several months the governor and other leading Illinois Republicans also have been criticized for failing to support Chicago more, in such areas as education, gun control, and care for troubled families and needy children. The Chicago Sun-Times has suggested that Edgar and some Illinois legislators are doing the bidding of generous campaign contributors representing gambling interests.
Edgar and state lawmakers have received more than $672,000 in contributions from the gambling industry since Jan. 1, 1993. The governor was the No. 1 recipient, accepting $173,710, the newspaper reported on April 10.
`THAT'S big money, that's larger than you'd find given to some congressmen on large federal issues,'' says Ms. Litsey.
Edgar, who opposed gambling initiatives for Chicago that lost in 1992 and 1993, denies that contributions shaped his decisions on gambling.
``If you look at Governor Edgar's record in public service, you'll see campaign contributions have not influenced his policies,'' says Mike Lawrence, the governor's spokesman.
For Daley, approval of the Chicago River gambling site would be a significant legislative triumph after a string of embarassing defeats. It would show voters in next year's mayoral ballot that Daley, on at least one important issue, can compel the governor and other Republicans in Springfield to act in Chicago's interest.
In 1991, Daley sought approval for the construction of an $11-billion airport at Lake Calumet. Although Edgar voiced support for the proposal, the Republican leader in the Illinois Senate, James ``Pate'' Philip, did not. The proposal withered.