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NO LIMIT Illinois' gambling tsunami offers lesson for Kentucky

Monday's story in The Paducah Sun about the latest effort to expand gambling in Illinois is cause for reflection.

Do you remember how casino gambling began in Illinois? Longtime residents of our area will recall it began as a "limited" program. Specifically, Illinois authorized a handful of licenses for riverboat casinos, to be located in areas of the state in need of an economic boost. One of those turned out to be across the river in Metropolis.

The purpose of the riverboats was to provide a tourism experience. They were to offer a quaint return to the riverboat era, during which, yes, there was gambling on the boats along with other types of onboard entertainment for people who traveled the nation by waterway in those times.

So it was that the riverboat licensed in Metropolis could not allow gambling while it was docked. People signed on for four-hour "cruises", which basically entailed the boat motoring out to the middle of the river and idling about for several hours while people gambled. That didn't last long, particularly after Kentucky officials threatened to seize gambling boats it contended were operating in disputed waters.

Within a matter of a few years, the charade of the voyage was dispensed with and the riverboats in Metropolis and elsewhere were moored permanently, with gambling available non-stop. From there Illinois' "limited" gambling pretty quickly expanded to additional casinos, including land-based ones, and more recently, the proliferation of video gambling machines in convenience stores and other public locations.

Now Illinois, drowning in debt from pension obligations and unchecked spending, is proposing yet another gambling expansion. A bill in the Illinois House calls for adding land-based casinos in Chicago and its suburbs as well as a few other cities. It also would allow licensed casinos to offer online gambling. And it would add slot machines at Illinois horse racing tracks and Chicago's two international airports.

Supporters say the expansion would generate between $400 million and $1 billion a year for the state's beleaguered treasury, an amount that is nothing if not imprecise. But as we noted in an editorial earlier this year, the competition for gambling dollars in and around Illinois is already eating into this relatively limited pool of money. We cited the experience of the Metropolis casino, which has seen revenues decline 25 percent since 2010, and saw double-digit year-over-year declines in December.

We're not cheering that fact. But we think there are a couple of lessons here for Kentucky, which is yet again weighing a legislative proposal to allow "limited" gambling in Kentucky by amending the constitution and licensing eight casinos across the state.

The first lesson is that there's no such thing as "limited" gambling. Illinois' quaint riverboat gaming cruises have over the course of two decades evolved into wall-to-wall gambling, not just in casinos, but convenience stores and gas stations. Now the state wants to expand that to include race tracks, airports and the Internet.

The second lesson has to do with the broad uncertainty about how much money expanded gaming might actually generate these days. The best lawmakers can do is say we can tell you within $600 million what it will be. That is effectively their acknowledgment that the pool of gambling dollars is finite and the market is already so saturated with options that the true impact is unknown.

Ask yourself - is the wall-to-wall gambling that is developing in Illinois what we want in Kentucky? Is that really how we want to finance our schools and government programs? Is it the example of financial responsibility we want our state government to set for our children?

Perhaps we hearken to the past. But for our part, we think Kentucky is better than that.

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