Most gambling lobbyists are paid to advocate for the industry's expansion, but the head of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association spent almost all of his 20-year career battling legislators bent on saturating his state's market to increase tax revenue.
"We succeeded for about 17 years until the legislature passed the bill in 2019," said Tom Swoik, who will retire on December 31 after serving 19 years and nine months as the executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association (ICGA).
Senate Bill 690 authorized six new casinos, including one in Chicago, and almost doubled gaming positions in Illinois from 43,000 to 81,000.
When the casino in Chicago opens, which should be 2025, there will be one gaming position for every 126 people in Illinois who are aged 21 and over, according to Swoik.
"This is going to lead to cannibalization of existing casinos, including Rivers (the most successful casino in Illinois located in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines)," Swoik said.
Swoik, 73, took over as the head of the casino association on April 1, 2002 (April Fools' Day), and the joke was on him.
"When they hired me, they told me I wouldn't have to do any lobbying. Within two weeks after taking the job, they sent me to the state capitol in Springfield to testify against a tax hike on gaming, and I've been lobbying ever since," Swoik said.
A self-described "numbers guy" with a background in accounting, Swoik came to the ICGA after eight years with the Illinois Gaming Board where he served as interim administrator during November and December of 2002.
"I issued the largest fine that had ever been issued in the [Illinois] gaming industry. We fined Grand Victoria Casino $7.2m for various things that had been going on there," Swoik said.
Before being elected in 2018, Illinois Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker sold his 1 percent interest in the Grand Victoria Casino.
No one has excoriated Illinois gaming policy more than former Penn National CEO and chairman Tim Wilmott, who described the state as "the bane of my existence" and the "U.S. version of North Korea."
Wilmott also called Illinois the worst state for gaming investment and predicted the 2019 gambling expansion law would be "an absolute disaster" for an already saturated market.
“I’ve joked that I’d rather put [a casino] in Baghdad [than in Illinois],” Wilmott once said.
Yet, in 2015, Penn National was one of the first commercial casino companies to enter the video gaming terminal market in Illinois.
Swoik said he understands the frustration of gambling operators doing business in Illinois.
But the strict regulations, he said, have helped keep Illinois relatively scandal-free as the state celebrates its 30th year in the gaming industry.
"My wife and one of her friends traveled to Las Vegas when I was at the Illinois Gaming Board and she went to a gift shop to buy some poker chips for me," Swoik said.
"When she told the clerk I worked at the Illinois Gaming Board, the clerk said, 'Oh, you mean the KGB?'"
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of his career at the ICGA, Swoik said, has been the lack of support the gaming industry receives from lawmakers and governors.
"They tend to forget that the gaming industry pays the state billions of dollars in taxes," he said.
Swoik considers internet gaming to be "the last frontier" for the Illinois gaming industry, but an increase in federal funding to the state by the Biden administration has reduced the urgency to pass an online gaming bill.
Tom Thanas, a former city manager of Joliet, Illinois, who also worked as an attorney for Caesars Entertainment, will succeed Swoik as the head of the ICGA.
Swoik said he plans to assist in the transition at the ICGA and will consider consulting offers from gaming operators in the future.