Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has toyed with the concept of establishing a city lottery to help ease the city's financial woes and, while the idea has not progressed, it could get backing from at least one key Democrat in Springfield.
That's one of the better nuggets buried in the trove of private emails that Emanuel was forced to release just before Christmas under pressure from a Better Government Association lawsuit.
The May 5, 2015, email came from former Illinois Lottery Director Michael Jones, who suggested in a memo that a city lottery and related sports betting could pull in a whopping $550 million or more for a city facing huge legacy pension costs.
Jones sent the memo to Senate President John Cullerton, a longtime political ally, who in turn forwarded it to Emanuel. The mayor was interested enough that he sent it on to top aides including Deputy Mayor Steve Koch and Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool.
"A city of Chicago lottery could be producing significant revenue by fiscal year 2016," Jones wrote.
"Chicago generates over $1 billion a year in illegal sports betting, with profits going to illegal interests," he added. "This creates an opportunity to legalize, regulate and generate revenue from sports betting as a test, similar to the legalization of the numbers game in the late 1970s."
Koch's response to Emanuel's email at the time is blacked out. A city spokesman said officials were skeptical that the plan would have pulled in nearly that much and did not pursue it, but leaves future possibilities open.
Says the spokesman, "The mayor is always on the lookout for new ideas and creative solutions, and the decisions he's made over the past several years have shored up the city's finances.... Any idea that will increase revenue while holding the line on taxes has appeal, but this particular idea is not being pursued at this time."
A spokesman for Cullerton confirmed that, after checking with the city, no actual legislation authorizing a city lottery and sports betting was filed. Such a plan would have had to pass not only the Senate but a likely more hostile House, and then get the signature of Gov. Bruce Rauner.
But it looks like Cullerton remains willing to try. Added the spokesman, "It seemed like an interesting idea, and the Senate president tries to keep an open eye and open mind for new ideas that might help address the financial problems."
Jones, who I reached by phone, said he continues to think a city lottery, perhaps managed by a private company, "is a great way to raise revenue without taxes."
Jones said he sent the memo when, shortly after he stepped down as lottery chief, he was approached by European-based gambling companies interested in expanding operations in the United States. Jones said he was interested because, compared to the rest of the world, legal gambling here is focused on narrow market niches, especially wagering on terminals in stores, that are overly pitched to lower-income groups.
For instance, he told me, a lottery could be sold in restaurants, with customers paying via credit cards offered a chance to add $1 or $2 to purchase a lottery ticket.
A Chicago lottery even could expand business for the state lottery by getting more consumers interested in participating, he said. Right now, less than 10 percent of those who could play actually do so, in the process creating a huge underground market for illegal gambling.
"All of these ideas are worth exploring," Jones argued. "We're potentially appealing to a much larger group.... It's better public policy."
Right now, I wouldn't look for anything to happen. Emanuel has blown hot and cold on the idea of building a large casino in Chicago.
But if Springfield powers ever get together on a budget deal and don't want to raise taxes as much, who knows?
Rahm Emanuel Emails