Monday, October 17, 2011

Quinn vows to veto gaming plan, but supporters still seek a deal

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn wants lawmakers to start over with new gaming legislation, but backers of the gambling expansion that passed last spring are not ready to walk away from the bill.

“I think it was done in a hasty manner, and it has major flaws. That’s why I will veto it,” Quinn said about Senate Bill 744 at a Chicago news conference today. The governor presented sweeping changes that he says he would like to see drafted into a new bill. “I think members of the General Assembly realize it’s not exactly a masterpiece. It has a lot of shortcomings. It needs fundamental improvement. It’s better to go back and start over and do it right.”

Perhaps the most controversial part of the governor’s plan is his opposition to slot machines at horse racing tracks. Instead he said he would only back the five new casinos called for in SB 744. Quinn also shot down slots at the state fairgrounds and Chicago airports. “We … cannot have the massive expansion of gambling envisioned by this bill. A smaller and more target expansion is the way to go,” Quinn said. “The bottom line is, in the metropolitan area of Chicago, instead of having nine new casino gaming operations, there would only be three — Chicago, Lake County, southern Cook [County.] Downstate, instead of having five new casino gaming operations, there would be two — Rockford, Danville.” Quinn said he is concerned about oversaturation of the gambling market. “If folks are leaving our state to gamble, the locations that I’ve selected are right in the area[s] where people are most likely to leave. … There’s a limit to how many dollars can be spent on gambling in the first place. Our current casinos have seen a decline in revenues — rather significant.”

Quinn also called for a tweak to implementing video poker, which was legalized at some bars and restaurants statewide as part of the capital construction plan passed in 2009. While local governments can now opt out of allowing video poker machines, Quinn wants local officials to have to vote to accept video gaming instead. The Illinois Gaming Board has yet to issue any licenses to businesses seeking to offer video poker, and the plan has brought in no revenue. SB 744 would require the board to begin issuing provisional licenses, but Quinn said the gaming board should be allowed to work on its own timetable. He also complained that the proposed timeline for issuing new casino licenses would be too rushed. “I think that gaming board should act after it’s done all its work and feels that it’s complete.”

Quinn said that the gaming expansion plan would not direct enough money to schools and construction. He added that the plan’s tax breaks for casinos were too generous. “We do not need excessive tax breaks for lucrative casinos.” While the legislation calls for revenues that state would receive from new casino licenses to be paid over time, Quinn wants the money upfront to spend on the state’s overdue bills.

Despite Quinn’s vow to veto SB 744, supporters say they are still working on a trailer bill with changes in the hopes of reaching a compromise. Waukegan Democratic Sen. Terry Link is optimistic about working out a deal. “I think that we addressed [in the trailer bill] a lot of the concerns that the governor addressed in his statement today, even though we didn’t know about it,” Link said. “We’re probably not a mile apart, but we’re maybe a half of a mile to a quarter of a mile.”

Link, who sponsored SB 744, did take issue with Quinn’s plan to assign some casinos to cities, while leaving the locations in Lake County and southern Cook County up for grabs. “Some he’s designating and some he’s not, and I think it’s ridiculous.” Quinn said that opening up the licenses for bidders in the two areas would likely pay off in more revenues for the state. “I think the gaming board should choose the location in Lake County. I think the gaming board should pick the location in southern Cook County. There will be, I think, robust competition in both of those locations for a site for gambling.” However, Quinn may be open to compromise about the locations. He made previous negative statements about a Danville casino but ultimately included it in his plan. “I said ‘Don’t hold your breath.’ Well, they’re breathing now,” he said today.

Link also said it would be difficult to pass a plan that doesn’t include slot machines at horse racing tracks and that slots at the tracks are included in the working version of a trailer bill. “No, we did not take slots away from the tracks because we don’t think the bill will sail out of the General Assembly if we did that. It will have a hard time.” Sponsors sold the bill as a way to help the state’s struggling horse racing industry. Tony Somone, executive director of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association, said that under Quinn’s proposals, “harness racing in Illinois in two years would look very, very different. And I am confident that within three to five years, it would not exist.”

Current casino operators may see Quinn’s suggestions as a favorable shift and an opportunity to get back to the negotiating table. “It certainly is reflective of many of our concerns about the size of expansion,” said Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association. “We’re not against expansion … as long as it’s done reasonably.”He said he thought Quinn’s plan was “well-thought-out” but said it was difficult to judge because it has not been drafted into legislation. Swoik said he hoped the governor’s reservations about expansion and cannibalization of current casinos would make current owners' interests heard in the debate that is sure to come over the next few weeks. As for the trailer bill, he said, “To my knowledge we have had not input into the bill, which is sort of distressing.”

Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang, the House sponsor of SB 744, said it is not up to lawmakers or Quinn to make sure that casinos’ profits are protected. “We should not care as a government which gaming enterprise makes money, as long as we as a state make more money.” Lang agreed that a trailer bill would be the simplest solution. “It would be very difficult to put the coalition together necessary to get the votes to pass [a gaming bill] again.”

Both Lang and Link said they have not ruled out creating a new bill if Quinn cannot be persuaded to sign the original legislation and a trailer bill. Link, who has been pushing various gaming expansion packages in the Senate for years, said Quinn’s statements that the legislation was rushed and ill-conceived are wrong. “He never sat down with us and questioned why we did some of the stuff. We didn’t just pull this stuff out of the clear blue sky,” Link said. “It’s easy to tear it apart if you don’t understand it.”

Senate President John Cullerton is sponsoring Senate Bill 747, which his office has identified as the vehicle for a trailer bill. “Now that the governor has articulated his proposed changes, we will fold his recommendations into our ongoing discussion of how we can make the gaming bill better for the state. Additionally, we will be evaluating the governor's framework in light of what is passable by both chambers of the General Assembly,” Cullerton said in a prepared statement. Those following the issue closely say they expect the legislation to be filed publicly soon, possibly as early as tomorrow.

While supporters have said they want a resolution on the gaming bill by the end of the legislature's fall veto session, which is scheduled to start next week, Quinn said he doesn’t mind waiting. “If it takes longer, so be it. If they have to take a longer period of time in order to do their work. I think it’s better to do it right the first time so we don’t have problems,” he said. “The bottom line is, I’m the goalie. I’m the final word.”


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