Monday, May 30, 2011

Gaming expansion clears the House

By Lauren N. Johnson

A gaming bill that calls for new casinos and video poker at horse racing tracks throughout the state could become the chosen method to pay down a portion of the state’s towering stack of overdue bills.

Senate Bill 744 (amendments 1 through 7) passed in the House today and would allow slot machines at horse racing tracks and the expansion of gaming positions on riverboats in the state. It also calls for new casinos in Chicago, Park City, near Waukegan, Rockford, Danville and a suburb south of Chicago.

Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, said the hope is to get the casinos and horse racing tracks with slot machines up and running within six months. However, the actual construction period would depend on the Illinois Gaming Board.

New revenue gained by the expansion would be used to pay down the state’s backlog of overdue bills and for construction projects. “We have over $6 billion in unpaid bills in the state of Illinois and no way to pay them. People have turned their back on borrowing it. People can’t figure out how to pay it. … You all have vendors and citizens in your communities who are owed money by the state,” Lang said.

Lang said the measure would save horse-breeding and gaming industry jobs lost to other states that could potentially offer larger purses for horse races. Other proponents say the bill would revive local economies in depressed areas of the state. “In my community, at long last, a community on the border, a community that is downstate that cannibalizes no one as it relates to gaming interests,” said Danville Republican Rep. Chad Hays.

The bill would also allow casinos to expand the number of gaming stations at their facilities and allow existing horse racing tracks such as the Illinois State Fairgrounds Racetrack to have year-round racing and slot machines. Gov. Pat Quinn said last week that he was opposed to putting video gaming machines at the State Fairgrounds. While Quinn has been vague on exactly what type of gaming bill he would sign, he has said he could back a Chicago casino. However, he has said he opposes any “top heavy” expansion that increases gaming throughout the state.

Lang said that if the bill ends up on the governor’s desk, it will be difficult for him to veto it, knowing that it could bring in so much revenue to pay some of the state’s backlog of bills owed to vendors, schools, local governments and social service providers.

“Every new gaming position is supported by a large fee,” Lang said, highlighting that the bill would raise at least $1.5 billion in “up-front” revenue from the licensing fees collected for newer provisions added to address the state’s more than $6 billion debt. Lang said he expects the state to bring in $500 million to  $1billion in additional gaming revenues annually after new operations are up and running.

Lawmakers who opposed the bill suggested that some House members may be eager to pass legislation to pay down the state’s backlog of unpaid bills and cast “yes” votes without fully favoring the gaming bill. "Well, I think that's the problem here. I think that we're all eager to pay the bills or to pay human services providers, and so things that we might not ordinarily agree to, we agree to," said Rep. Rosemary Mulligan, a Des Plaines Republican, who voted against the bill.

Doug Dobmeyer, spokesperson for the Task Force to Oppose Gambling in Chicago, said, “We don’t think that that is a way that government should raise funds for its operations.” The group supported the tax increase, of which a portion was dedicated to addressing the state’s unpaid bills, but it strongly opposes so-called state sanctioned gambling.

Dobmeyer said more individuals will become addicted to gambling, especially lower-income gamblers who are trying to gain extra money. “It’s the machine that wins; it’s not the individual that plays it,” he said. Currently, there are nine casinos in the state and on July 7, a 10th casino will open in Des Plaines. Lang’s bill would bring the number to 15 throughout the state.

According to the Illinois Gaming Board, Illinois residents who choose to gamble spend $102 on average each month. When asked whether the provision to fund compulsive gambling programs for individuals could address addiction, Dobmeyer said it’s a step, but it may not be enough to alleviate the problem. “It’s a couple Band-Aids,” he remarked.

Sen. Terry Link, a Democrat from Waukegan, told reporters that he plans to call the bill for a Senate floor vote Tuesday morning. The Senate approved a large gaming expansion bill in January, but it was voted down in the House.

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