SPRINGFIELD – After failing to win enough support the past two years, proponents of expanded gambling in Illinois see it having better chances this year, with other issues out of the way and the state in dire need of cash.
The legislation, which would establish five new casinos and authorize slot machines at racetracks and airports, went out with a whimper last May as the session adjourned. Lawmakers discussed the lengthy, complex proposal extensively but never called it for a vote.
So far, advocates are pushing almost identical legislation this year, but circumstances are different. It’s an election year, but lawmakers must deal with a number of difficult tax and budget issues, even as they try again to overcome the ethical concerns raised by Gov. Pat Quinn.
“I believe there’s an opportunity to pass a bill that the governor will sign,” said state Rep. Lou Lang, an assistant House majority leader and sponsor of previous gambling legislation. “Having said that, it’s a timing issue. There’s an election year, and gaming is a difficult issue at best.”
Much has changed in recent months, including the passage of pension reform legislation, which Gov. Pat Quinn had said must be accomplished before he’d consider signing a gambling expansion proposal. Quinn has vetoed two previous gaming bills passed by the Legislature.
In addition, lawmakers have been looking for new sources of funding as they debate whether to extend the state’s income tax increase, which is scheduled to roll back from 5 percent to 3.75 percent next January. Sponsors say gambling expansion would provide an estimated $400 million to $1 billion a year in revenue.
“There’s no doubt we need some revenue,” said Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat.
The bill, sponsored by Democratic State Rep. Bob Rita of Blue Island, calls for adding casinos in Rockford, Danville, Chicago’s south suburbs and Lake County in addition to Chicago. It also would allow current and future casino licensees to apply for an online gambling license and add slot machines at the state’s horse-racing tracks and O’Hare and Midway international airports. The bulk of revenue from brick-and-mortar gambling would go toward school funding.
Rita, who has been conducting a series of public hearings around the state, says the legislation could be changed to “address regional concerns,” including some that surfaced last month during a forum in East St. Louis.
That city’s top officials, along with executives with the Casino Queen, cautioned against allowing slot machines coveted by the struggling nearby Fairmount Park horse track, saying slots at the racetrack would eat into the local tax revenue the casino provides the city.
That discourse was cordial, but it reflects the divide Rita may have to bridge in gathering broader support for his expansion efforts.
Still, Rita said, his measure’s framework and its main components are expected to remain the same as the bill that failed to get traction last spring.
“I think the time’s right,” he said. “It’s not only revenue for the state, it’s revenue for all of these [depressed] regions.”
Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Democratic governor running for re-election, said Quinn only will support expanded gambling if it includes ethical oversight and “will never compromise when it comes to keeping corruption out of the gaming industry.”
Link said this year’s bill would include ample money for oversight. He also promised it would be much more streamlined than the 500-page previous version that Gaming Board Chairman Aaron Jaffe has called a “Christmas tree bill.”
“It can get so top heavy that nobody wants to be a supporter,” Link said. “... Everyone thinks we’re going to be making billions of dollars off of this. The whole point of this is to try to get money for schools and possibly a capital development bill.”
Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont wants even more limits in place and a better evaluation of the impact of video gaming machines at restaurants and bars around the state. Yet, with Democrats’ current veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate, Radogno said she expects the proposal will be pushed this year.
“It’s a perennial issue, but I think what will drive it [this time] is the fact that Democrats have not done what they need to do to get spending under control and they’re looking for revenue,” she said.
Complicating those efforts is the upcoming race for governor.
Three of four GOP primary candidates are lukewarm about the plan. And Lang says that even if there is support in the Legislature to pass a bill, Quinn might not want to sign it until after the fall election. The Legislature’s spring session wraps up at the end of May, and by law, the governor has 60 days to sign or veto a bill before it automatically becomes law.