Monday, December 10, 2007

The chips may fall, but ...

The Illinois House will convene in Springfield next Monday to debate a major gaming proposal announced in Chicago this morning. Two new casinos, one in Chicago and one elsewhere in the state, could unlock months of political stalemates, according to sponsors Reps. Lou Lang of Skokie and Bob Molaro of Chicago (I heard their press conference on the Internet through Capitol Fax). Or, that same plan could be a dud if it isn’t quickly followed up by separate but related plans to fund road and school construction projects and mass transit and education subsidies.

House Speaker Michael Madigan wrote a letter to legislators and labeled the gaming plan as a “compromise,” but even if all four legislative leaders and the governor agreed on the latest version, there’s a whole lot of back-and-forth that needs to happen before they agree on ways to distribute that money. It’s generally agreed that revenue will be split, with the largest chunk paying for road and school construction projects and the rest for increased education spending. However, Lang said they still have to decide whether the governor or the legislative leaders will have discretion in which projects get funded. And considering trust hasn’t been strong this year, that decision could take a while. In a phone conversation Monday, Lang said, “[The leaders] have yet to come to members and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to get a capital bill. You get X. Where’s your list?’ None of those things have happened yet.”

While Republicans will have this week to suggest tweaks to the gaming legislation, Lang said he’s “very confident” that this proposal or something like it will pass the House. Whether the Senate could support it is unknown. Cindy Davidsmeyer, spokeswoman for Senate President Emil Jones Jr., said in an e-mail that the leadership could support some issues but that it needs to see the actual language before moving forward. She also said session next week is possible, but nothing’s set in stone.

Major parts of the gaming plan include reissuing a legally challenged “10th license” that was previously marked for Rosemont. The plan also would create an 11th license. Chicago would get one of them to build a land-based casino owned by the city and operated by a private investor. All casinos in the state would be governed by a completely new, independent Gaming Board, Racing Board and Director of Gaming Enforcement. They’d work with ethics officers to oversee the bidding process for the two new licenses and manage the nine existing licenses.

Other details include:
- The owners of the two new licenses would have to open 25 percent of their ownership to minorities and women for as little as $5,000.
- The nine existing riverboats would gain a total of 3,500 new positions for a fee.
- The five racetracks would pay a fee to add slot machines.
- The Illinois Gaming Board would have to dedicate $5 million for compulsive gaming programs and kiosks.

If you’re curious about the pros and cons of legalized gambling and about what other states do with the money, check out the analysis provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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