By Jamey Dunn
A sponsor of legislation to expand gambling in the state said he is looking for enough votes to override a potential veto from Gov. Pat Quinn.
Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang sponsored Senate Bill 744, which the General Assembly passed last spring. Senate President John Cullerton used a procedural move to hold the bill to try to negotiate with Quinn. However, Lang said the strategy did not work. “Throughout the summer, there were many meeting held with the governor, but none of those meetings are what you would call negotiations. There was never a point in time that the governor chose to negotiate,” Lang said. “And so we were left with trying to figure out how to handle this.”
During a news conference shortly before veto session began, Quinn said he would veto SB 744 if it were sent to his desk. He also detailed some suggestions for rewriting the bill. He said he supported new casinos but would not go along with allowing slot machines at horse racing tracks. He also raised concerns about the oversight included in the original plan.
Sen. Terry Link, sponsor of SB 744 in his chamber, introduced another bill, SB 747, during the first week of veto session that he said was based on Quinn's suggestions. Quinn came out strongly against Link's proposal, and the plan has not been called for a floor vote.
Lang said he tired to take Quinn’s thoughts — as well as criticisms from Illinois Gaming Board Chairman Aaron Jaffe, newspaper editorial boards and others — into account when drafting a new gaming expansion bill, SB1849. A House committee approved Lang's bill today.
The measure includes slots at horse racing tracks but does not allow for slots at the Illinois State Fairgrounds or Chicago airports. It would reduce the number of gaming positions available to casinos from 2,000 in the original bill to 1,600. They currently are allowed 1,200 positions. The Chicago-owned casino proposed in the plan would be allowed 4,000 positions. Lang said any unused positions at a facility could potentially be transferred to another casino that would use them. “It is in the benefit of our citizens to have all of those positions used.” Lang said that it would be up to the Gaming Board to create the procedure for transferring positions.
SB 1849 does not include a controversial provision that called for the Gaming Board to issue temporary licenses within 60 days of application to bars and restaurants seeking video gaming. The proposal was meant to spur the board to implement video gaming, which was approved as part of the funding for the state’s capital construction plan. So far, no licenses have been issued and no revenue from video gambling has come in.
Lang said some lawmakers were uncomfortable with issuing the temporary licenses. His new bill calls for the board to begin implementing video poker before any new casinos can be licensed and before horse tracks can get a license for a permanent location for slots. However, they would be able to operate out of a temporary facility, such as a tent. Lang said he wanted to ensure that the board did not “skip over” video poker to begin work on a gaming expansion. “That could be one machine, it could be 10,000 machines, but they’ve got to get it up and running.”
Lang said the legislation should clear up concerns about oversight of the Chicago casino. He said the ultimate authority would belong to the Gaming Board. Quinn complained that the city would be allowed too much regulatory leeway under SB 744.
But Lang’s stated goal of finding 71 “yes” votes in the House — enough supporters to override a veto from Quinn — indicates that he is less worried about pleasing the governor with his bill and more concerned with getting as much support from his fellow lawmakers as possible. While Quinn has yet to take a position on the plan, Lang's goal shows that he is anticipating a veto. A spokesperson for Quinn said his administration is “reviewing the proposal.” Quinn has said numerous times that he opposes allowing slots at horse racing tracks. He has said that such a proposal allows for too much gambling in the state and would lead to the cannibalization of business from existing casinos.
Current casinos owners oppose Lang’s plan for that very reason. “We’re not opposed to a casino in Danville. We’re not opposed to a casino in Rockford, Chicago, the Waukegan area. … We are opposed to the facilities right next door to existing casinos,” said Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino gaming association. Swoik said casino owners are not opposed to expansion as long as it is “reasonable” and in “new market areas.”
He added: “The state isn’t going to get the kind of money that they think they are going to get out of this. We’re just transferring gamblers from one area to another.”
But Lang said the bill would bring in roughly $1 billion in licensing fees in addition to future revenues from taxes paid by casinos and racetracks. “I think we’ve made a very good piece of legislation better; one that will raise billions of dollars for the state, one that will pay our old bills,” Lang said. “At a time when our unemployment rate has reached 10 percent, this is something that we must do.”
He said finding the backing for a veto proof majority is “not going to be easy,” and he is not above exploiting recent rifts between the governor and the legislature to rally the votes he needs. “I will use any legal means to get a veto proof majority to pass this bill.” He said Quinn’s proposal to close state facilities, his comments implying that campaign contributions influenced votes to override his veto on a smart grid plan and his refusal to negotiate about gaming caused some animosity toward the governor among lawmakers. “I think when the governor announced two weeks ago that he was not in favor of slot machines at racetracks, it made some people very angry. … I’m going to go to those legislators, and I’m going to get them angry.”
Lang said he hopes to call his bill for a floor vote tomorrow.