Gambling expansion expected to get another look in legislature


SPRINGFIELD -- Two key state lawmakers involved in gambling legislation last week flatly predicted the legislature will vote on an expansion bill before the end of the month.

The question is whether Gov. Pat Quinn will soften his opposition to slot machines at horse racing tracks and sign a bill that contains slots if it reaches his desk.

“There will be something, and it will be before May 31,” said Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan, a reference to the General Assembly’s scheduled adjournment.

“We think we’re going to pass the bill,” Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, said of Senate Bill 1849.

The bill would allow new casinos in Chicago, Rockford, Danville, near Waukegan and in the south Chicago suburbs. It also would allow slot machines at racetracks, although not at the Illinois State Fairgrounds and also not at airports.  Existing casinos also could expand their operations.

The bill needs 60 votes to pass the House. If it gets 71, it would signal Quinn that there are enough votes in the House to override a potential veto.

Lang said he thinks he has enough votes lined up to pass the bill, but declined to say if he thinks it will get 71.

Lang and Link met last week with Quinn to discuss the bill.

“I presume because the governor feels now that we may pass the bill, he thought it was appropriate to talk to the sponsors of the legislation whether there could be something to negotiate,” Lang said.  “We’re willing to meet with him, have met with him and will continue to meet with him in an effort to see if the governor’s office and the sponsors can agree on what it ought to look like.  If we can make progress, that will be good.  If we can’t make progress, I’ll run the bill as it is.”

Slot softening?

A bill very similar to SB 1849 passed the General Assembly last year.  It, too, would have added five casinos and slots at tracks and would have allowed existing casinos to expand.

The bill was never formally sent to the governor, though, because Quinn threatened to veto it and the votes didn’t exist for an override. Quinn said he particularly objected to slots at tracks and that it lacked sufficient oversight provisions.

Quinn issued a 12-point framework for what he said would be acceptable gambling expansion.

“He made 12 proposals.  We took eight of them and put them in the bill,” Lang said, among them stricter oversight, removing the fairgrounds from the bill and prohibiting slot machines at airports.

Slots at tracks are still in the bill.

Lang declined to offer details of his discussion with Quinn. 

“I’m waiting for a proposal from the governor as to what changes he would like to see,” Lang said.  “Whatever the governor wants to talk about, I’m prepared to talk about.”

“There were no commitments,” Link said.  “Hopefully, we will get something before May 31 from him and have an agreed-upon bill, which is what we always intended.”

Asked if he sensed Quinn is still opposed to slots at tracks, Link said, “We’re not sure.”

“I think where he is, he’s softening on slots at tracks,” Link said.  “He still hasn’t come up with a definitive answer.”

Quinn’s office said the governor is “entirely focused” on pensions and Medicaid.

“That being said, the governor laid out a strong framework last year for a better and more ethical bill.  That’s where we stand,” spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said.  “Any gaming talk at all right now is a distraction from solving the real and big challenges that Illinois faces.”

Casino competition

Quinn has an ally in opposition to slots at tracks from the current casino owners.

“We’re not opposed to expansion, especially if it is in new market areas,” said Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association. “What we’re against is having slot machines at racetracks that are within five to 10 minutes of casinos.”

Most gaming positions at existing casinos are slot machines rather than table games.  Swoik said eight of the state’s 10 casinos have racetracks “very close” to them.

The problem, said both Lang and Link, is that a gambling expansion bill can’t pass unless it allows slots at tracks.

“I cannot pass a bill that doesn’t satisfy the horse racing interests in the state of Illinois,” Lang said.

The horse racing industry says it needs the revenue that slot machines will produce to enhance purses. Casino owners suggested that a subsidy for the industry could come from an assessment on the five new casinos.

“Any of the (expansion) proposals have negative impact on existing casinos,” Swoik said.  “The only one that doesn’t have as much of a negative impact would be if there are subsidies to the racetracks from the new casinos.”

Link and Lang said that idea isn’t going to appease the racing industry.

“The apprehension they have is there’s never been a way to prove it’s a guaranteed subsidy,” Link said.  “You can always have a future General Assembly decide not to fund it.  Slots at tracks is a guaranteed way to get their money.”

Plus, they both said, slot machines would probably produce more revenue for the tracks.

All about bottom line

Casinos are also worried that the expanded gaming will cannibalize revenues from existing establishments. 

A recent report from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability showed that adjusted gross receipts for riverboat casinos were up more than 20 percent in the first nine months of this budget year. However, the report noted that this improvement was primarily because the new casino in Des Plaines opened in July.  Revenues at casinos in Elgin, Aurora and two in Joliet all fell during the same period.

“Des Plaines’ success has been at the expense of many of the other riverboats in Illinois, especially those near the new casino in the Chicago metropolitan area,” the report said.

Lang and Link said the important thing is that gambling revenues are up.

“We’re not there to represent one boat over another boat,’ Link said.  “We have to look at our bottom line.  At the end of the year, if our bottom line is better, then we are doing our job.”

Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527.