Illinois Legislature

Illinois Sen. Terry Link, D-Vernon Hills, holds up the gaming expansion bill he sponsored as it awaits a vote in the Illinois Senate during overtime of the Spring Session at the Illinois State Capitol, Sunday, June 2, 2019, in Springfield, Ill. The Illinois Senate approved funding for the capital construction plan, legalized sports betting and gambling expansion. (Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP)

My eyes did a double-take while my wife and I walked along Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago a few years ago.

A city bus pulled up to the curb. The lights of the shops along the street known as the "Magnificent Mile" illuminated an advertisement on the side of the bus. Its message seemed misplaced. It read, "Indiana: We're not only a workforce, but a force that works."

An ad touting the Hoosier state on a Chicago city bus?

The sign — part of a Indiana Economic Development Corporation marketing campaign — was just the latest example of Indiana poking a finger in the eye of its larger and beleaguered neighbor. Such taunts began with former Gov. Mitch Daniels' administration and have continued through his Republican successors' terms. Illinois has been an easy target, thanks to epic fiscal mismanagement, ex-governors landing in prison (including the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex), and dysfunctional state government.

Plus, Illinois leans politically toward being a blue-state. That has made kicking the Land of Lincoln when it's down too tempting for leaders of red-state Indiana to resist. Indiana holds genuine advantages. Its lofty credit ratings, noted "business-friendly climate" and status as being "the fiscal envy of the nation" are real, though not representative of the entire Hoosier state.

Have Illinois counterparts been bothered by all the derisive billboards ("Illinoyed by higher taxes?"), political put-downs, poaching of businesses and blunt calls for residents to move to Indiana? Well, a few months after winning the Illinois governor's seat in 2014, Bruce Rauner — a Republican no less — made a comment to the Chicago Tribune editorial board that summarized the rivalry's depth.

"Believe me, I am going to rip the economic guts out of Indiana," Rauner told the Tribune.

No gray areas in that statement. Still, Rauner's single term failed to fulfill that vow. He lost last November's election to Democrat J.B. Pritzker.

Now, Pritzker and the Illinois legislature, dominated by his fellow Democrats, have taken a step that could give Illinois a rare upper hand, at least in terms of recent history. The operative word is "could." Illinois has a long, long way to go to reach stability. Moody's Investors Service's latest report gave Illinois the lowest credit rating.

Last week, the Illinois General Assembly passed an expansion of gambling that some gaming industry experts say could make Illinois "the Nevada of the Midwest." It allows six casinos to be built throughout the state, including Chicago and Danville; permits sports gambling; OKs slot machines and table games at horse racing tracks and Chicago's airports; and increases the number of machines outside casinos.

Illinois' number of gambling positions would nearly double to 80,000. That's almost four times as many as any of its neighboring states, including Indiana, according to ProPublica Illinois figures cited by the Chicago Sun-Times. Pritzker is expected to sign the bill.

That expansion could deflate expectations of Indiana's gambling expansion, approved by the Indiana legislature in April. That much debated legislation allows one of Gary's two casinos to move to Terre Haute, boosting the state's total to 13 casinos. It also allows statewide sports betting.

Competing casinos in Danville, Ill., and Terre Haute — within an hour's drive of each other — likely shrinks the market for both. Likewise, a massive casino in Chicago would keep many Windy City gamblers in that town, instead of them traveling across the state line to casinos in northwest Indiana.

Illinois officials expect its significant gambling expansion to generate 10,000 jobs and $45 billion in revenue to fund capital improvements in fiscally challenged state, according to a Northwest Indiana Times report. Much of that money would've been spent in neighboring states' gambling outlets.

"This really is no longer a competition among casino operators. It's a competition between states," Sara Slane, senior vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Gaming Association, told the Tribune-Star in a phone interview Tuesday.

"You have to always anticipate that you're not going to have a monopoly in your state, and realize your neighbor could put a casino in at anytime," she added.

Several of those states are right here in the nation's traditional heartland. Legislatures in Wisconsin, Iowa, Tennessee, Missouri and Indiana have acted, or have considered, adding casinos and sports gaming. "The Midwest is the new desert, I suppose," said Slane, who's in her sixth year with the AGA, following seven years with MGM in Nevada.

Residents in such states have seen benefits of the gaming industry's presence, Slane contended, and thus supported expansions. Legislators sense the intensity of the competition, as well. "They're thinking, 'If we can't keep up, we're undoubtedly going to lose to our neighbor," she said.

Still, Slane was surprised to see Illinois' broad bill pass, given that so many stakeholders were involved. "They were able to get it done, though," she said.

Indiana's legislation, approved before Illinois acted, impressed Slane, especially its "well thought-out" sports gaming language.

Illinois' economy is twice the size of Indiana's. The Hoosier state, though, has appropriately handled its gaming expansion, Slane believes. "I do think the model Indiana has put in place is very competitive," she said.

And, when it comes to the two states' overall economies, Indiana remains in a more stable position.

"The move by Illinois to extend gaming is really more desperation over their financial situation than anything like an economic resurgence," said Michael Hicks, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University.

Illinois' economy remains fragile, Hicks stated Wednesday afternoon, with high taxes and huge unfunded liabilities. "It is the poster child for high tax, low-quality public services."

He also pointed out, though, that Chicago's viability helps Indiana, even if Illinois' gaming expansion dents Indiana's gaming plans.

"The Illinois casinos will compete with Hoosier casinos, especially in Lake County [near Chicago]," Hicks said. "They will also take some of the growth away from a Terre Haute casino. But the problem with Illinois' economic and fiscal woes is not one of competition, but rather one of negative spillovers. Chicago is the urban center of the Midwest, and we [in Indiana] need it to succeed. If it does poorly, so too will the Chicago suburbs of Indiana."

Indiana needs Illinois, and vice versa. That would make a good bus slogan.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.