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Senate leader wants Illinois to run online gambling

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SPRINGFIELD — Senate President John Cullerton says it's crucial that lawmakers approve his plan to regulate Internet gambling in Illinois by the end of this month.

By Jayette Bolinski

SPRINGFIELD — Senate President John Cullerton says it's crucial that lawmakers approve his plan to regulate Internet gambling in Illinois by the end of this month.

The framework, the Chicago Democrat said, would position Illinois as a worldwide Internet gaming hub.

But, he said, Illinois lawmakers must move quickly because Congress is considering legislation that would only allow states that already have a framework in place to offer Internet gaming.

"We estimate that the potential new revenues to the state are in the hundreds of millions of dollars," Cullerton said in a letter to the state's top lawmakers this week.

Cullerton says Illinois residents already make illegal Internet bets through offshore gambling sites — money that instead could be filling the state's coffers. "In turn, the state could organize the first major poker pool, garner worldwide popularity and position itself as a 'hub' for multi-state and international iGaming."

Cullerton's proposal, filed today, calls for the creation of a Division of Internet Gaming within the Illinois Lottery. The division would:

  • Establish an Internet gaming platform;
  • Accept wages and pay out winnings;
  • Promote Internet gaming;
  • Work with other states to offer intrastate gaming, such as poker;
  • Verify that users are legally allowed to gamble.

He says the division could be up and running next year.

Illinois became the first state to sell lottery tickets online in March after the U.S. Justice Department issued an opinion that the Wire Act of 1961, which prohibited Internet gambling across state or national lines, applied only to sports betting.

Anita Bedell, executive director of the Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, said the proposal caught her off guard. The organization advocates for a "healthier, safer and family friendly" Illinois, according to its website, and it opposes the plan.

"This certainly is a major expansion of gambling and totally surprising, especially given the fact that Internet lottery just started in Illinois in March," Bedell said, noting that Cullerton's proposal would make a variety of gambling legal in Illinois, including poker, casino games and instant lottery tickets.

"The pitfalls are 24-hour gambling, seven days a week, from your home, your cell phone, your office, your dorm room. You could gamble anywhere in the world," she said. "They not only want to accept bets from people in Illinois, they want to accept them from all over the world. That's huge. How are you going to prevent fraud and identity theft from happening?"

In his letter to lawmakers, Cullerton noted that other states, including New Jersey, California and Massachusetts, are working on their own Internet gaming frameworks.

"Our study of these frameworks indicates that they are ill-suited to harness iGaming's dynamic nature and potential in an ethical and socially responsible manner that maximizes revenue," Cullerton wrote. He did not elaborate.

"Indeed, certain forms of iGaming, especially poker, rely on large pools of potential players, and states that move swiftly to design a system that captures the widest audience of participants will have an advantage in terms of long-range success."

According to the proposal, the Division of Internet Gaming would have its own executive director and staff and would not be privately managed, as the Illinois Lottery is. It would be funded with money from the state and proceeds from Internet gambling, but no details were provided about how much officials think it would cost.

The measure could be debated in committee sometime this week. Bedell said she intends to testify against it.

"Look at the mess we're in already with pensions. They can't pay their bills, and now they want to be the world leader in Internet gambling?" Bedell added. "It's just absurd. They need to deal with what they've got on the table right now. Pay their bills and solve their problems before they jump into another mess that's not going to work."

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