Wednesday, May 23, 2012

House passes gaming bill it previously rejected

By Ashley Griffin and Jamey Dunn

The final weeks of legislative session rarely pass by without rumors of a gambling expansion passing. But sponsors of a bill that failed in the House on the last day of session last spring are betting that this is their year.

Earlier this week Gov. Pat Quinn urged legislators to address Medicaid reforms by the end of the week and not to get distracted by “shiny things,” such as gambling, but today a gaming bill passed on the House floor with 69 “yes” votes and 47 “no” votes.

Senate Bill 1849 was described by sponsor Rep. Lou Lang as an attempt to strike compromise with Gov. Pat Quinn late in May of 2011. A gaming bill, SB 744, had passed in both chambers, but Quinn had vowed a veto. Senate President John Cullerton used a procedural move to keep the measure from ever landing on the governor’s desk. Quinn put out some suggestions — which included not allowing horse racing tracks to have slot machines, a pivotal part of the bill that had passed — for a new bill. Lang came out with a new version, SB 1849, that he said scaled back the plan that had passed, and addressed some of Quinn’s concerns. The bill failed in the House during the legislature's 2011 fall veto session. 

But it would seem some attitudes have changed in the last year.

“When we have almost 8 percent of our people out of work, when we can’t cobble a state budget because we don’t have enough revenue, when the 30,000 or 40,000 jobs in the horse racing industry are disappearing, when our convention and trade shows are down — when they should be up — when thousands of our people every day get in their cars and drive through Chicago and the south suburbs of Cook County and spend their money in Indiana, I think this is much more than a bright shiny object. I think this is a imperative for state government to move this forward,” Lang, a Skokie Democrat, said during floor debate of his bill today.

The measure aims to open five casinos statewide, in Chicago, Park City, Danville, Rockford and in the south suburbs of Chicago. The exact location of the fifth casino would be up to the Illinois Gaming Board to decide. The bill includes slots at horse racing tracks but does not allow for slots at the Illinois State Fairgrounds or Chicago airports, which Quinn previously bashed publicly. The bill also aims to reduce the number of gaming positions available from 2,000 in the original bill to 1,600. Casinos currently are allowed 1,200 positions. The Chicago-owned casino proposed in the plan would be allowed 4,000 positions. Lang said the bill clarifies language about the oversight of the Chicago casino, something Quinn had cited previously as a concern.

According to Lang, the bill would direct all up-front licensing fees to pay down unpaid bills. Lang said the plan could pay off $1.2 billion to $2 billion in overdue bills. The legislation would provide a new inspector general for the Illinois Gaming Board and additional funding for that board. The plan also calls for $31 million to go to agriculture programs annually, $10 million to fix up the state fairgrounds and $10 million to go to gambling addiction services annually. Lang said the expansion could generate anywhere from $300 million to $1 billion for the state. He said the volatile economy makes estimating the total revenue difficult.

Supporters argued that gambling expansion could help bring in much needed revenue. “In the next week, we’re going to make some very, very, very difficult choices. This is the last place that we can go at this point to try and address some of the needs of our communities. So when you’re thinking about these appropriations committees and what we’re going to cut, remember that today … you’re going to have a choice. Do you want to raise money to help fill some of the problems and relieve some of the cuts?” Rep. Ed Sullivan, a Mundelein Republican, said during floor debate of the bill.

But some said lawmakers should not look to a gambling expansion to solve immediate budget woes. ‘If we’re talking about getting money to prevent the cuts that we’re going to have to make this year, it’s not going to happen,” said Rep. David Harris, a Republican from Arlington Heights. “It is not a windfall, so don’t go spending the money because it’s not coming in. Clearly there will be dollars coming into the state, but it’s not anywhere near what you think it’s going to be.”

Opponents called the promise of billions in revenue “fools’ gold.” “The amount of revenue generated is inflated, and they will not get that money for several years,” said Anita Bedell, executive director of the Illinois Church Action on Alcohol & Addiction problems. Bedell — who advocates on behalf of gambling addicts, the people she says are the collateral damage in such an expansion of gaming — said she was very disappointed in today’s vote. She noted that Quinn is unlikely to sign the legislation.

Earlier this week, Quinn warned against lawmakers losing focus on passing Medicaid and pension reforms by taking up gambling. “I’m not going to get distracted by that subject. Sometimes down here, shiny objects can distract people. We don’t want any of that this week.” Shortly after the House passed SB 1849, Quinn released a statement trashing the bill. “This new bill falls well short of the ethics standards I proposed in my framework last October. Most importantly, it does not include a ban on campaign contributions as lawmakers in other states have done to keep corruption out of the gambling industry and out of Illinois. Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and bordering states like Iowa, Michigan and Indiana have all approved such bans,” Quinn said in prepared statement. “It does not provide the Illinois Gaming Board with sufficient time to make critical licensing and regulatory decisions. This bill also does not provide adequate oversight of the procurement process. It does not ensure clear oversight of the proposed Chicago casino.

“As long as I’m governor, I will not support a gambling bill that falls well short of protecting the people of Illinois. It is clear that this gaming bill still needs significant improvement.” Quinn urged lawmakers to turn their focus back to the subjects of Medicaid and Pensions.

“This is a governor who has said that it's perfectly OK with him and his administration promoting online sales of lottery tickets, so 12 million Illinoisans are gambling at home online. So to say a few hundred people can’t put a nickel in a slot machine at a race track where they are already gambling just does not make any sense to me,” said Lang. He said he is confident that the measure will pass in the Senate and head to Quinn’s desk.

If Quinn fulfills his promise of a veto, backers may be spending time this summer lobbying for votes to override Quinn in the fall veto session, when they will have plenty of lame duck lawmakers to call on for support.

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