By Bob Kieckhefer
The fate of Illinois racing increasingly seems to be held hostage in a tug-of-war between Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel--a showdown that involves both substance and a test of wills.
The point at issue is legislation passed during the spring session of the General Assembly that would dramatically expand gaming in the Land of Lincoln. The measure would, among many other things, authorize several new casinos and slot machines at Chicago airports.
The key provisions from a racing perspective are authorization of slot machines at race tracks and a new, land-based casino in downtown Chicago.
Quinn, backed by gaming regulators, has fretted the bill goes too far and would expand gambling beyond the state's power to oversee it. While he has not directly threatened to veto the measure, his criticism has been strident and consistent.
Emanuel, in office for just over 100 days, inherited a huge budget deficit from former Mayor Richard M. Daley and is counting on a quick infusion of casino revenue to help plug the revenue holes. He went so far recently as to outline exactly how he plans to use the new gaming money.
That frustrated Quinn, who has struggled to find a position of leadership independence since he took over as governor upon the impeachment of his predecessor, Rod Blagovich, with whom Quinn twice was elected lieutenant governor.
Quinn has butted heads with legislative leaders with mixed success and clearly does not want to be seen as being bullied by Emanuel, who made his reputation as a hard-driving leader in the U.S. House of Representatives and as President Obama's chief of staff.
"We're not going to adopt any legislation that doesn't have strong reform principles in the heart and center," Quinn told the Arlington Heights Daily Herald recently "We're not going to let any mayor, any politician or any gambling interest call the shots."
When Emanuel cited the appearance of a massive sinkhole on a Chicago street as proof he needs casino money to repair infrastructure, Quinn bristled again.
"We're not going to have a situation where every community in Illinois that wants to fill its sinkholes or potholes wants a casino," Quinn said. "I mean, come on."
Quinn does not yet have the bill on his desk. Senate President John Cullerton, an Emanuel ally, has held the measure in the Senate on a technicality to prevent Quinn from summarily vetoing it. Several meetings have been held involving legislative leaders, racing figures, and their supporters, including former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, in an effort to reach a compromise.
The substance of a compromise might involve cutting back on some of the expansion and beefing up enforcement provisions--concessions which would jeopardize support in the House and Senate. But the bigger compromise might involve how Quinn and Emanuel both can save face while the bill is signed into law.
There is no timetable for moving the bill, though supporters hope to have a deal cut before the fall veto session. That likely would involve quick passage of a "trailer bill" to address Quinn's issues so the governor could sign both measures at the same time.
Meanwhile, the Illinois Racing Board is scheduled at its Aug. 30 meeting to rule on how the state's racetracks should distribute $141 million in new money. The cash is the accumulated contributions from the state's four largest casinos as a result of a 2006 law directing 3% of their earnings to race tracks. The legislation had been tied up in court and the money held in escrow until the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear a final appeal.
Arlington Park immediately announced it would spread the purse share of its new revenue over racing for the rest of 2011 through 2014. Horsemen objected, saying they wanted the money paid more quickly. Both sides indicated they will let the IRB decide the matter and all parties lauded the influx of revenue.