Thursday, July 12, 2007

Gaming discussed without the governor

The Senate is expected to recast its gaming bill that it originally approved May 31, the last day of the regular session. Now both Democrats and Republicans in that chamber are willing to expand gaming with one new riverboat in Chicago and up to three others anywhere else in the state. Senate President Emil Jones Jr. previously wanted to limit the new boats within certain distances from state borders. Now Rockford, Danville and other areas around Illinois would be able to bid on one of the new gaming licenses.

But there’s a lot of negotiating to be done before lawmakers decide where the boats would go and what the revenue would go toward. Education and major capital projects were the two priorities discussed in a closed-door meeting in the governor’s Statehouse office Thursday, but Gov. Rod Blagojevich wasn’t there. And his beloved health care idea wasn’t talked about.

The governor was in Chicago announcing a new executive order to prohibit insurance companies from basing premium increases on a client’s health status. Blagojevich’s absence changed the tone of the meeting in his office, the lawmakers said. “In fact, I think the governor would be a distraction today based on the feeling about him in this building,” said Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat who recently released his frustrations on the House floor about the governor’s leadership. Thursday’s meeting was more “business-like,” according to Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson.

But the gaming meeting didn’t advance any new legislation, and there's a long way to go. For years, a slew of hang-ups have stymied efforts to expand gaming for state revenue. The horseracing industry wants subsidies from the state so it can compete with expansion of other gaming. But there’s debate about the subsidy level and the mechanism — slots at racetracks or an “impact fee” charged on casinos. And there's a trust issue about whether the state will simply change the law after the first wave of cash flows in, said Rep. Bob Molaro, a Chicago Democrat in the meeting. Other sticking points include the number of new boats and their locations. Lang said in early June that his version of gaming legislation spelled out nine Chicago-area communities in need of economic development that would qualify for one of the new gaming licenses.

Two other complications were raised after the meeting. One was by House Minority Leader Tom Cross of Oswego: “I think for everyone, one of the central questions here is, when would this money become available, assuming you bought into any of these concepts? We’re into July, and to get any of these things up and running, if you bought into that, you’d have to be pretty aggressive [for it] to be in the ’08 fiscal year.”

The other was mentioned by Sen. James DeLeo, another Chicago Democrat in the meeting. The priority of using gaming revenue for road and school construction projects might be more complicated. “We were warned by the budget director that casino revenues, gaming revenues are very hard to sell bonds on,” DeLeo said. “There’s a lot of if, if, ifs in gaming.”

So one of the lingering “ifs” is whether gaming will even appear in the final budget. If you need a refresher, here's where the key players stand on the gaming issue:
- The governor and Jones have said they support four new casinos in the Chicago area, and Jones has said he wants the money to go to education.
- Cross and House Speaker Michael Madigan said their caucuses still support expansion of gaming only at existing casinos, with the money going toward road and school construction projects.
- And Watson said Thursday the Senate GOP Caucus is open and flexible but would prefer the revenue fund a capital program.

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