Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Gaming board airs compliants over gambling expansion

By Jamey Dunn 

Members of the Illinois Gaming Board faced a chilly reception when they appeared before a state Senate committee today to present their concerns about a gambling expansion bill currently being considered.

“Thank you for being here today. It’s about time. We’ve waited for a long time for this meeting to take place. I’ve heard myself being criticized on TV, radio, everywhere else by you, judge, but it’s the first time we’ve had a meeting. So I appreciate you showing up,” Sen. Terry Link said to Aaron Jaffe, a former judge and now chairman of the gaming board. Jaffe has publicly bashed gambling proposals backed by Link in recent years. Link is the sponsor of Senate Bill 1739, which would allow five new casinos statewide, including one owned by the city of Chicago. The bill would also allow slot machines at horse racing tracks and online gambling that would be administered by the Illinois Lottery.

Jaffe focused most of his complaints about SB 1739 on the plans for the Chicago casino. The measure creates the Chicago Casino Development Authority, which would own the casino. The authority would then contract with an operator that would run the casino. Jaffe said that he is concerned that the legislation is not clear on what entity would have regulatory power. He said the gaming board, which polices all the other casinos in the state, would have the ability to provide oversight in the same way for the proposed Chicago facility. Under the bill, the city’s license could not be suspended or revoked. The operator’s license, however, would be subject to the same scrutiny as the state’s 10 other casino licenses. But Jaffe said that he was worried that the Illinois Gaming Board and the Chicago Casino Development Authority would eventually end up in in a legal battle if there is disagreement about oversight. “I don’t want to be in the position of having to go through court battles with the Chicago authority because there’s conflict in our rules.”

Senate President John Cullerton said during the hearing that supporters of the expansion intend for the bill “to create a situation where [you] have the same authority that you have over every other casino in the state over Chicago.”

Jaffe said that he does not oppose Chicago getting a casino. But he said there could be unintended consequences associated with a city-owned casino, something he says does not exist elsewhere in the United States. “There can be conflicts that pop up that we will never dream about now,” he said. In addition to his complaints about the Chicago casino, Jaffe said the bill is too large and poorly written. “It contains so much junk in it from top to bottom,” he said. “It’s a Christmas tree bill. It’s something for everyone.” He said the board is not prepared to take on the task of vetting such a large expansion. “If you want that bill, properly enacted and properly regulated, we probably would need 300 more bodies,” he said. Gaming board officials said the board is understaffed by about 100 people and would need those positions filled, plus 300 more employees to administer to proposal.

Supporters argue that the measure will bring economic development to depressed areas, add more than $1 billion in revenue to the state’s struggling budget and help to prop up the state’s struggling horse racing industry. Link said that Jaffe and the board should have been working with him on the bill instead of complaining about it publicly. “If you had a problem with this bill you or your staff should have been in my office...and asking me ‘what can I do to improve the bill.’ And I would have listened to you.”

 Jaffe said he would be willing to sit down with lawmakers to talk about the bill. But judging from the exchanges at today’s hearing, that could be a contentious meeting. Jaffe and committee members from both sides of the aisle traded barbs, and at few points things became heated between Jaffe and Link. “I don’t want to be insulting today, but I just think what you’re saying is preposterous,” Jaffe said.

Link responded, “Well, I think what you’re saying is beyond that.”

Part of the tension may stem from a provision in Link’s bill that would remove all the members of the gambling board. Gov. Pat Quinn would be free to reappoint them if they fit the bill’s requirements for board members. But Link said tonight that he does not plan to pass a bill with that component, and he plans to remove it from the bill when it is up for another committee hearing next week. Quinn today reiterated his support for the current board. “I have a lot of respect for the gaming board. I’ve put people on there that are upstanding and will get the job done for the public. Anything that lessens their independence, I think is very dangerous.”

He also rehashed his longstanding worries about the oversight of a Chicago casino, which he says he supports. “I think we have to be exceptionally careful in places like Chicago, where we must have over all the time so that we don’t have wrong people in gambling doing bad things.” But Quinn said he is “not excited” about allowing online gambling, which SB 1739 would also do. “This whole subject of Internet gaming, we’ve got to be careful here. This has to be analyzed very carefully. We just can’t pass things willy-nilly. It doesn’t have the proper review. It just was thrown in there at the last minute, and I don’t think that’s healthy. I think when it comes to gambling, you always have to be careful. I think everybody in Illinois knows that.”

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