By Dermot Connolly
Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury is adamant that the village's "push tax" remain despite calls to eliminate the measure that went into effect on Jan. 1.
The so-called push tax imposes a one-cent tax every time a button is pushed to gamble at any of the 200 video gaming machines scattered among 41 businesses in the village. Oak Lawn was the first municipality in Illinois to approve such a tax, but Tinley Park is considering one.
An initial hearing was held earlier this month and a second was supposed to take place on March 18 at the request of attorneys representing the terminal operators. The attorneys said they were not given enough time or information before the hearings to represent their clients appropriately.
But the March 18 hearing was postponed until further notice when state and federal directives put a temporary end to public gatherings due to the coronavirus crisis.
Bury pointed out at a village board meeting last month that, according to the Illinois Gaming Board’s latest numbers, $16,501,382 was wagered in Oak Lawn gaming terminals in January, which is more than the village’s entire tax levy of $14.2 million for 2019.
At the same meeting, Trustee Alex Olejniczak noted that between 2012, when video gaming was legalized, and 2019, Oak Lawn gaming terminals generated $70,877,253 in net income. But he said the push tax was needed because, by state statute, the village only receives 5 percent of the net income. Business owners and terminal operators each get 35 percent, and the state gets 25 percent.
Bury said that when the new tax was proposed, officials estimated that it could generate about $500,000 in additional revenue for the village. But that could increase to as much as $1 million. But the hearings were called because 40 of the 41 businesses with video gaming in the village did not complete the required forms or submit any tax revenue for January. Only Illinois Operators submitted revenue.
A handful of attorneys, most representing multiple gaming sites in the village, were present at the first hearing and were called up individually and asked whether or not their client had submitted the required documentation.
One of the attorneys, Kim Walberg, informed Bury and village attorney Thomas Condon Jr. that her clients and the Illinois Gaming Machine Operators Association had filed an injunction against the village to stop the tax from being imposed.
Some of the attorneys called for the hearings to be postponed indefinitely, until the lawsuit claiming the tax was unconstitutional was settled. But that was rejected.
“ We stand by our home rule authority to do this,” said Bury, who presided over the hearings with Condon beside her.
Prosecuting attorney Sean Michael Sullivan objected every time raised questions about the legality of the tax, asserting that that was not a matter to be decided at the hearing. They were only being asked whether their clients had submitted the required paperwork or not.
After agreeing to continue the hearings, Bury also stressed that, “the constitutionality of the ordinance is not an ordinance before this body.” She said that any arguments about that should be tendered in writing.
Another reason that several of the attorneys cited for not collecting the new tax was that doing so would be too cumbersome, because the gaming terminals are not equipped to keep track of exactly how many times the buttons are pushed.
Village officials said that the one operator who did submit the tax was able to do so by coming up with an estimate.
“ If one can do it, they all can do it,” said Bury.