Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ag industry pushes for Quinn to sign gaming bill

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois agricultural groups are calling on Gov. Pat Quinn to sign the massive gaming expansion plan approved by the General Assembly, but Quinn does not have the option to do anything with the bill yet.

“The provisions in Senate Bill 744 are going to go a long way in the future of agriculture in Illinois,” said Margaret Vaughn, government affairs director for the Illinois Association of Agricultural Fairs.

The measure calls for five new casinos in the state, including one owned by the city of Chicago. It would also allow horse-racing tracks, including the state fairgrounds in Springfield, to install slot machines and existing casinos to expand the number of gambling positions at their facilities. Opposition to the bill includes owners of existing casinos who say that gaming market is oversaturated in Illinois and, that expansion will take away their existing revenues, as well as groups who say that expansion will only drive up gambling addiction and social services costs to the state associated with gambling.

Vaughn said the plan would mean about $25 million in annual funding for agricultural, historic and conservation programs in the state, including:
  • $5 million for county fairs.
  • $10 million in dedicated funds for soil and water conservation districts. The money would replace general revenue funding for the districts.
  • $4 million for the University of Illinois Extension program.
  • $1 million for a forestry assistance program.
  • $2.5 million for historic sites.
  • $2.5 for the Parks and Conservation Fund.
  • $100,000 for equine research at state universities.
The money for county fairs is used to reimburse the fairs for prizes they give out for livestock and agricultural exhibits and contests. “Any of the money that the county fairs receives from the state … it’s not going to entertainment or concessions. It’s going right back into the community to encourage the youth to continue into agricultural careers,” Vaughn said.

The Extension program, which in the 1980s had an office in all of Illinois’ 102 counties, recently went through a cost-saving consolidation that closed down over half of it’s 76 offices. The program is best known for administering the 4-H youth agricultural club but also offers conservation, nutrition, gardening and life-skills education programs. Soil and water conservation districts saw more than a 40 percent cut in state funds for the current fiscal year.

Sheryl King, director of the Equine Sciences program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, said that the horse racing industry in Illinois has suffered as other states have allowed slots at horse racing tracks. She said the money brought in by the slots has allowed races in other states to offer larger purses to winners, and Illinois just cannot compete.

“Part of this bill is going to reinvigorate the horse industry in the sate of Illinois,” King said referring to the provision that would allow slot machines at horse racing tacks. “Some of you may not know that Illinois used to be a pre-eminent racing state. It has lost that pre-eminence over the past decade.”

These representatives of the state’s agriculture community trying to encourage Quinn to approve the gaming bill as is, but the governor can’t do anything with the legislation yet. After the bill passed in his chamber, Senate President John Cullerton pulled a procedural move to stall sending the bill to Quinn’s desk.

John Patterson, a Cullerton spokesman, said that the Senate president made the move so that he can continue negations with Quinn about the bill, as well as better understand the governor’s intentions.

Quinn has not given a clear indication about what he will do once he gets the bill. He supports a casino in Chicago. But after SB 744 passed, he said, “I think any person with common sense looking at that bill would say it’s excessive.”

Quinn has also said he does not approve of allowing slots at the state fairgrounds, calling the fairgrounds a “family place.” Quinn could veto the bill outright, sign it as is or use an amendatory veto to try and cut out the parts he does not like.

Vaughn said of the fairgrounds: “It’s a big beautiful facility. And they’re not really utilized the other 50 weeks of the year. There are events going on but [not] compared to what they are capable of.”

Chris Boyster, Sangamon County Board member from Springfield, said slots at the fairgrounds would give the Springfield area an economic boost. He added that the fairgrounds need the money the slots could bring in for improvements. “We shouldn’t have to wait to a catastrophic electrical failure at the fairgrounds to fix the fairgrounds.”


Chuck Nesbitt said...

It is amazing how gambling is the cure to all of Illinois' ailments! I am sure in a few years, the $25 million for ag, historic, and conservation programs won't be enough. Instead of coming up with common sense solutions for funding problems, we'll just expand gambling again. Give me a break!

Anonymous said...

Existing casinos are opposed to gambling expansion saying slot machines at Illinois racetracks will hurt their business. TOUGH!
Did the casinos care about hurting horse racing when (RIVERBOAT) gambling was legalized. RIVERBOATS, HA! They should force them to go back to the original concept.

dylan said...

Rather than complain that there is competition and they will lose business, they need to look at making themselves better and seeing if they can work with the new casinos. competition is a good thing!