Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Senate hopes to woo Quinn with new gambling plan

By Meredith Colias

The Illinois Senate passed yet another gambling expansion, and supporters hope newly added ethical guidelines will persuade Gov. Pat Quinn to sign it.

In the last two years, the legislature has approved two gaming expansion bills, and Quinn has vetoed both. The Senate today approved Senate Bill 1739 on a 32-20-1 vote, with six members not voting.

The new bill is similar to previous proposals. It includes slot machines at horse racing tracks and new casinos for Chicago, Rockford, Danville, the southern suburbs of Chicago and Lake County. Existing casinos could get more gaming positions. Chicago could use some its new gaming positions at its airports.

Waukegan Democratic Sen. Terry Link, who sponsored all three of the gaming bills, said he made the changes in response to the governor's criticism of past plans. The latest version of the bill bans casino license-holders from contributing to political campaigns, something the governor has pushed for in the past. It also gives the Illinois Gaming Board the last word in oversight on the proposed Chicago casino. A body would be created to own the casino, so it would not be directly owned by the city. Under the plan, the Chicago Casino Development Authority would contract with an operator that would actually run the facility. However, Quinn said he was worried that the authority might try to circumvent the regulatory power of the Gaming Board. 

Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican who voted against the bill, said the legislation would potentially penalize people who owned establishments such as small bars that were licensed for video poker and made private contributions to a political campaign on their own. “What we don’t want is those people back home [writing small checks to campaigns], and the next thing you know someone on the gaming board is knocking on their door,” he said.

Link said the bill would provide a financial windfall for the state. The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability estimated revenues from licensing fees for the slot machines at racetracks, new casinos and new gaming positions at existing casinos would bring in $1.2 billion initially, and $268 million annually after that. “It not only will save thousands of jobs, it will create thousands of jobs, and it will help our educational system for the future,” he said. Representatives from existing casinos say they think the revenue potential is not that large.

Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, said most of the existing operators are not interested in new gaming positions and believe the expansion would cannibalize the 10 already-existing casinos in the state. Swoik said a lot of the money estimated to come from the expansion was already spoken for and would not be available to go to schools. “We believe that this is going to leave very little money for education,” he said.

Link said that according to the COGFA report, of the $268 million projected proceeds, about $128.7 million is slated to go to education. He said he hoped Quinn would recognize the “huge effort” made to incorporate the governor’s suggestions into the current bill.

Quinn said in his February budget address that he could support gaming only with a proposal that had ethical protections, with the money taken in by the state going to education. A spokeswoman for Quinn said today that the governor is not taking a stance on the bill, but she said she does see some improvements. “It appears to be moving in the right direction. We’re reviewing it in detail. We’re pleased to see a number of our proposals included,” Brooke Anderson said.

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