Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Gaming bill held for more work

By Jamey Dunn

After publicly calling lawmakers' attempts to pass gaming legislation based on his suggestions a “charade,” Gov. Pat Quinn is reportedly in talks with its sponsor.

Last week, Quinn laid out the changes he wanted to the gaming expansion package lawmakers approved last spring. Sen. Terry Link, the sponsor of the original plan, Senate Bill 744, decided to back a bill, SB747, that he said was based on Quinn’s proposals.

A Senate committee heard testimony on SB747 today, and Quinn balked at the idea of his plan being pushed through the legislative process. “This is not the governor’s bill. Instead of improving their current bill and having good faith discussions within the governor’s framework amongst the House, the city of Chicago, the racing industry, the [Illinois] Gaming Board, and the governor’s office, some have chosen to put on a charade,” said a prepared statement from Quinn’s office. “The governor announced a framework — not a bill — for any gambling expansion last week. He will support a smaller, more moderate gambling expansion that prevents corruption and provides adequate revenue for education.”

But Link, a Waukegan Democrat, said he carried they bill with the sincere hope that it would pass. “I can do only as much as I can do.”

Link said he thinks Quinn may have backed away from the plan after he began to realize that it did not have enough support to pass in the legislature. “I think he already felt that there were a lot of people out there that didn’t have the willingness to vote for his concept. So now that we put it in a bill form, his feelings [are] a little bit different.”

Link said he and supporters of the original bill tried to work with Quinn all summer to negotiate a rework of the bill that he could live with. “President [John] Cullerton has met with him a couple times without any type of real negotiations,” Link said. “Until that press conference [when Quinn made his demands] … we had no idea of where the governor stood on any of these issues.”

After the committee hearing this afternoon, Link said he doubted Quinn’s willingness to negotiate. “If he was truly open to negotiations … why wouldn’t he personally call me and say, ‘I’d like to negotiate with you?’ I’m still the sponsor of the bill. I’m the chief sponsor of both bills.” However, someone must have picked up the phone because a member of Cullerton’s staff said Link, Quinn and Cullerton plan to meet  to discuss an amendment to SB747. Earlier today, Link said he planned to call the bill for a floor vote this evening, but later, he chose not to. “We’re going to have a meeting,” he said. A spokesperson for Quinn would not confirm the meeting, but said the governor will be attending a scheduled leaders meeting in the morning where several topics would be discussed.

Per Quinn’s suggestions, the bill does not allow for slot machines at horse racing tracks and limits gaming expansion to five new casinos, including one operated by the city of Chicago. However, it would require casinos to pay a so-called impact fee of more than $330 million to replace the money that the tracks could have made with slots. “This would be a fee that would make up for the amount of money that was figured to be made from the racetracks,” Link said. “Casinos would also have to chip in on an impact fee of $70 million that would go toward education.” He estimated that each casino would pay about $25 million.

Tom Swoik of the Illinois Casino and Gaming Association said the fees would put four or five of the state’s 10 existing casinos out of business. “You’re against SB 744 when you had the racinos,” Link said of the casino owners. "Now you’re against this with the impact fee. What do you want? You can’t have it both ways. If we want to increase he number of casinos in the state of Illinois, you have got to be for something." Link said that he was open to making changes to the fee system and filed an amendment this afternoon that would put off the fees until 2015.

Swoik said casino owners are not inherently against new casinos, as long as they do not cannibalize the business of existing operations. “We’re not opposed to expansion if it’s in new markets and in areas that don’t have such a concentration of existing gaming positions. All of the racetracks are right next to existing casinos.”

Cullerton said today that he supports the legislation but that there were some components he did not like. He noted that making local governments vote to opt into a plan to legalize video poker in bars and restaurants across the state likely result in less money for capital construction projects. Currently, local governments can vote to be exempt from the plan but do not have to vote to be included. The Illinois Gaming Board has not issued any licenses for video poker, and the gaming expansion has yet to bring in dollars for the capital plan it was enacted to fund.

Cullerton said SB 747 plan could bring in education dollars and more than $1 billion to help the state pay down its billions of dollars in unpaid bills. He said that even though he disagrees with parts of the plan, it is more important to try to stop gamblers from crossing state lines by approving five new Illinois casinos. “We do have all these people from Illinois spending their money in other states,” Cullerton said. “If you supported the original bill, I think there’s a way in which you could also support this bill.”

Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican said that if a gaming bill does not pass during the veto session, it would be a “failure of leadership” on Quinn’s part. “The state is losing out on the $1.5 billion in up front revenue to pay down the backlog of bills and $1 billion in annual revenue that say could go to reducing or rolling back the tax increase that has seen us struggle on the jobs numbers since January.”

Murphy added: “That is going to sit right at the foot of the governor.”

Whatever happens with SB 747, Link, who by his own count has been pushing gaming expansion for about 20 years, said he would not be ready to give up. “I won’t sit back and just go in a corner. I will be working with the [Senate] president and the House to try to get another bill resurrected and make sure we can get something done.”

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