Thursday, March 17, 2011

New gaming bill lacks Senate support

By Lauren N. Johnson

A revamped gaming bill emerged in the House today. The newest version of the plan does not call for new casinos and lacks the support of a key Senate backer of gaming expansion.

Sponsor of the measure, House Bill 3107, Rep. Lou Lang said the expansion would “soften the blow” to the industries’ losses in revenue stretching back to 2008. The bill, passed in a House committee today, would allow slot machines at horse racing tracks and the expansion of gaming positions on riverboats. Currently, operating casinos are allowed to have up to 1,200 to 2,000 positions at each facility. The measure’s earlier version, Senate Bill 737, which would have allowed five new casinos in Chicago, Rockford, Danville, Park City and a suburb south of Chicago, were removed from the new bill.

New revenue gained by the expansion would be used for the state’s backlog of overdue bills and capital projects. Lang, a Skokie Democrat, said the measure would save horse-breeding industry jobs lost to other states that, he says, offer larger purses for horse races. “There are 40,000 jobs at stake in the [horseracing] industry. We can save those jobs in Illinois if we can pass this bill,” said Lang.

Opponents say when other states have allowed slots at racetracks, instead of benefiting the horse racing industry, it has pulled focus from it. More than 90 percent of the revenue at racetrack casinos comes from slot machines, according to Anita Bedell, executive director of Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems. “Not from people betting on the horses,” Bedell added.

Lang said the racing industry supports the bill; however, casino owners still oppose the idea of increased competition at a time when they are seeing decreased revenue. “Illinois casino revenue has decreased by 31 percent over the last three years. We’ve lost 1,415 employees during that time. We estimate this bill will cause an additional 20 percent of loss of existing casinos because people will go to other venues,” said gaming lobbyist Tom Swock.

Lang said his bill addressed the recent downturn in revenues by providing large tax incentives for casinos, riverboats, and racetracks in the state. It would also allow casinos to expand the number of gaming stations at their facilities.

Senate support for the measure as-is doesn’t seem likely. Sen. Terry Link — a Waukegan Democrat, who has historically teamed up with Lang to sponsor gaming bills -- opposes this new version of gaming expansion. Link, who supports the creation of new casinos in the state, said the new measure does not address the state’s budget concerns and that his bill —w hich passed in the Senate last fall and included five new casinos — would have brought in more money for the state. The measure, which would have brought in an estimated $424 million, was never called for a vote in the House. Lang does not have a revenue estimate for his revamped bill.

Another measure that would extend areas where people could smoke in casinos also passed through the House committee. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Andre Thapedi, a Chicago Democrat, would extend smoking to only designated and ventilated smoking rooms in licensed gaming facilities in the state.

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