Illinois Senate approves granting eminent domain to casinos

The Land of Lincoln is doubling down on a bad bet.  Last week, the Illinois Senate voted in favor of a new casino bill, which would imbue casinos with the power of eminent domain.  If it passes, SB 1739 would amend the state’s Eminent Domain Act:

“The following provisions of law may include express grants of the power to acquire property by condemnation or eminent domain: Chicago Casino Development Authority Act; City of Chicago; for the purposes of the Act” (p.519 of the legislation).

Adding insult to injury, seizing and bulldozing someone’s home or business to construct casinos would even be considered a “public use:”

“For the lawful purposes of this Act, the City may acquire, by eminent domain or by condemnation proceedings in the manner provided by the Eminent Domain Act, real or personal property or interests in real or personal property located in the City, and the City may convey to the Authority property so acquired. The acquisition of property under this Section is declared to be for a public use” (p.27).

Illinois tried reforming its eminent domain laws back in 2006.  But that legislation was plagued with so many loopholes, the state received only a D+ from the Institute for Justice.  SB 1739 would add yet another loophole wide enough to ram a bulldozer through.

The bill passed 32-20 in the state Senate on May 1 and is now being considered by the House Executive Committee.  Gov. Pat Quinn has previously vetoed two Chicago casino bills in the past.  However, while the governor still has concerns about this new casino bill, he has indicated he could sign, so long as gambling revenue funds education and ethics standards are tightened.  (After all, four of Illinois’ last seven governors have gone to prison.)  Yet casinos abusing eminent domain apparently hasn’t crossed Quinn’s mind.

Seizing someone’s property to build a glitzy casino is an appalling abuse of power.  But sadly, it’s not unprecedented.  Back in February, the Institute for Justice reported on how Rohnert Park, Calif. (about an hour north of San Francisco) authorized eminent domain to seize private property, in order to widen a road for a new $800 million casino.

Meanwhile, New Jersey’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) has had “the power of eminent domain” since 1984 (a fitting year).  In 2011, Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation (SB 11) that expanded CRDA’s eminent domain powers for a new tourism redevelopment project in Atlantic City.  One project was then anchored by Revel, the first casino built in Atlantic City in a decade.

But  the casino only opened after it received $261 million in tax breaks from the state of New Jersey, earning the moniker “The Casino the State Saved” from The New York Times.  Now Revel has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, going bankrupt after only 10 months, with $1.5 billion in debt.  Revel going bust should be a cautionary tale.

To protect the homes and business of Illinoisans, lawmakers absolutely should strip from SB 1739 language granting eminent domain to casinos.  Property rights should not be gambled with.

— Nick Sibilla
Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice

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