Gambling backers try to avoid legislative deja vu
CHICAGO (AP) -- A determined push for Illinois to approve new casinos and racetrack slot machines with an equally determined governor standing in the way? Yes, the state has been here before.
Illinois' consideration of expanded gambling is stuck in the same place it was a year ago, after lawmakers again approved a bill for five new casinos -- including one in Chicago -- during the final days of their spring session. But the state may avoid a complete legislative deja vu.
This year lawmakers decided not to take the unusual step of keeping the bill away from Gov. Pat Quinn to prevent him from vetoing it. He likely will get the bill by the end of the month, and gambling proponents say they are anxious to work with him to find a compromise on his concerns about ethics issues and the racetrack slots.
"There is a good possibility to work with the governor in cooperation," said Democratic state Sen. Terry Link of Waukegan, one of the measure's sponsors. "I don't want to do that kind of showing of who's got more muscle. I don't think that's the way I want to operate anymore."
Once Quinn has the bill, he will have 60 days to decide what to do with it. So far, he has not expressed a desire to talk about it, indicating he is still likely to veto the measure.
The proposal would add a casino in Chicago owned by the city with spots for 4,000 people to gamble at once. There would also be riverboat casinos in Danville, Park City, Rockford and an undecided location in Chicago's south suburbs. Each riverboat casino would have 1,600 gambling positions, and Illinois' 10 existing casinos could expand.
In response to Quinn's opposition, the bill has some changes from the one that passed through the legislative last year. Link and the bill's sponsor in the House, Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, took out a proposal to allow slot machines at airports, and say they're open to other compromises.
In the weeks ahead, proponents say their goal is to convince the governor that a casino in the nation's third-largest city along with four riverboat casinos is a good way to bring in revenue and jobs to the fiscally-challenged state and keep gamblers from crossing state lines to spend their money elsewhere.
They have set aside a search for votes to override a Quinn veto. They assert they have enough votes in the House but would fall short in the Senate.
"Given a long hot summer of cuts to important programs, not enough people finding jobs and another summer of people driving to Indiana to gamble -- I would prefer to have an agreement," Lang said. "Nobody gets everything they want in negotiations."
Estimates on revenue to the state vary between $300 million and $1 billion a year. Backers say a casino would mean 100,000 jobs and help draw conventions, trade shows and tourists.
Last year, Quinn outlined his stance in a presentation with at least 10 different points of objection. In addition to opposing slots at tracks, he wants a provision in the bill that will bar the gaming industry from making political contributions. He says that is among necessary ethical safeguards that are lacking in the current proposal.
When asked recently about the latest bill's prospects, he said, "I wouldn't hold your breath on getting that bill signed."
At least one political watchdog group agrees with him.
In Illinois, the gaming industry gave at least $9.1 million in campaign contributions to elected officials and candidates between 2002 and 2011, according to the Washington-based group Common Cause.
The organization analyzed state campaign contribution information and found that Lang received more than $270,000 from the industry in contributions and Link received nearly $46,000. The data is the most recent available; candidates must file updated campaign finance disclosures in the coming weeks.
Lang said the political contributions come from industry people who both oppose and support the gambling expansion proposal. He believes it isn't fair to prohibit an entire industry from giving campaign contributions, but said he was willing to consider the issue if it would help pave the way for the gambling expansion.
Link already has filed additional legislation that would make that change, but it would be considered only if Quinn approves some form of the pending gambling expansion.
However, the expansion proponents do not want to remove the slot machines at racetracks, which the horse-racing industry has said it needs to survive and stay competitive. Racetracks and unions have formed an alliance to push the gambling measure forward.
"Illinois gaming expansion is a common sense solution to getting the Illinois economy on the right track," the group says on its website.
However, Quinn is not alone in his opposition.
State Sen. Linda Holmes, a suburban Chicago Democrat, is opposed to more casinos, saying they would oversaturate the market and not bring in additional money. She supports a casino in Chicago because it has the potential to attract tourist dollars, but one in the suburbs would compete with another already in her district.
"We're cannibalizing ourselves," she said.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)