Print version: Lawmakers push slots for horse tracks

Brian Feldt

Lawmakers wary of the state's ability to pony up the dough for its massive $31 billion construction bill are touting a new plan to help fund the program: slot machines at horse racing tracks.

Last year, legislators voted to pay for the capital bill using video poker in bars and restaurants but included an opt-out clause for communities that didn't want the games.

Thanks to that clause, video poker could fall short by an estimated $177 million - money that would create $1.7 billion in construction - as counties continue to opt-out.

House Bill 5975, sponsored by state Rep. Will Burns, D-Chicago, contains no opt-out clause and would generate more than $100 million from licensing fees and up to $300 million in annual revenue by allowing electronic gambling in the state's horse racing facilities - namely in Chicago's suburbs and the St. Louis area.

That money would create more than $3 billion in construction and help fill the gaps left by video poker.

"If we are going to get Illinoisans back to work and take care of building roads and bridges, we are going to need to have revenue going into the capital projects fund," Burns said.

Burns said the money would be used primarily for capital projects and not go towards plugging holes in the budget.

The bill has bi-partisan support and the backing of many of the state's unions, including the AFL-CIO. But there are roadblocks.

The state's casino industry stands strongly against the bill, arguing the measure would create new "land-based" casinos, putting riverboat casinos at a disadvantage.

Some lawmakers, including Gov. Pat Quinn, remain adamant video poker will raise enough money to pay for the construction program. Even Burns said he remains hopeful video poker can succeed.

But slots at horse racing tracks, Burns said, are a sure-fire way to support the capital bill.

"The great thing is that these facilities will get up and running very quickly and get revenue in for this fiscal year," he said. "The idea is to move the ball down field. The up-front revenue we get from the plan ... it puts money into that bucket where we can bond against as quickly as possible without the uncertainty that currently attends the video poker program."

Burns said he will try to push the bill before lawmakers plan to adjourn May 7.

State Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, said he has supported slots at horse racing tracks since before gaming money was associated with the capital plan. Lang said he had not reviewed this measure yet but predicted it would likely get majority support, provided lawmakers don't "want to play politics with the bill."

Lang said he believes the video poker will cover the costs of the capital bill, but that shouldn't stop lawmakers from passing this type of legislation.

"We should not turn our backs on helping out an industry and adding some revenue where we need it," he said, adding there could be a provision allowing excess money to go to other budget woes.

Brian Feldt can be reached at 217-782-6292 or