By Bob Kieckhefer
Illinois racing interests say they had enough votes to pass a slots-at-tracks bill this week and some say they were sold out by measure's sponsor in the waning hours of the legislative session. They also say failure to pass the legislation leaves Illinois racing in dire straits.
According to several first-person accounts, Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, the House sponsor of the bill, reported late on Jan. 11 he had between 63-65 votes for the legislation, which needed 60 "yeas" for passage in the House. The participants reported Lang told them the bill would be called in the early hours of the session Jan. 12, after the House passed a massive income tax increase.
Instead, Lang never called for a vote and the House quickly adjourned. A new General Assembly was sworn in later on Jan. 12, killing all pending legislation.
"Everybody in the industries that were working on this have gone berserk," Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan, told the Illinois State Journal-Register. "They can't figure out why they were lied to, why they were misled."
Mike Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said, "We're not quite sure what happened. It was a shock to everyone watching the proceedings."
And David McCaffrey of the Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association added, "There aren't sufficient words to describe how horribly the Illinois horse industry was treated Tuesday night. We feel we have been lied to, double crossed and put away wet…there are only a select few who really know what happened. Most Senators and Reps don't know what happened."
Speculation centered on heavy pressure on behalf of a new casino already under construction in Des Plaines, near O'Hare International Airport. Supporters of that venue are close to powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan and Lang is part of Madigan's leadership team.
Insiders, however, suggested the casino interests bypassed Madigan and, instead, approached Lang directly and worked out a deal to kill the bill.
However, Lang, in an interview Jan. 14, said he did not call the bill because he was uncertain he would be able to hold the needed 60 votes. He said he was told Gov. Pat Quinn would veto the bill even if it passed.
Lang said there were differing head counts of support for the bill, and that some members told him they were no longer sure they could honor their commitments to gaming expansion after the passage of the income tax increase.
A gubernatorial veto, he said, would have killed the bill because lawmakers would not have had a chance to override. "Sometimes when you stretch a member out to vote for a measure they don't want to vote for, they will only do it once," he said. "This was not the time to take one bite at the apple."
However, Lang would not say who in the governor's office told him the bill would be vetoed, and gubernatorial aides said Quinn had not made a decision either way since he had not seen the legislation.
Lang said he regrets the expression of betrayal from the horse racing industry, which he said stems from a misunderstanding of why he failed to act. He said he did not have time to explain his decision in the chaos of the session's end.
"All of this happened in a period of 10 minutes," Lang said. "I did not have the time or the opportunity to go out into the rotunda and explain to the supporters what was happening."
Lang said he has supported the horse racing industry for more than 20 years and will continue to do so. He said he already is drafting a bill which would deal only with revenue enhancement for racing.
In addition to authorizing slots at Illinois race tracks, the expired legislation, SB 737, also would have permitted up to five new casinos around Illinois, including one in downtown Chicago. The nine existing riverboat casinos and the Des Plaines facility scheduled to come on line later this year all bitterly opposed the creation of new competition.
Attempting to address those concerns, Lang earlier in the week had agreed to amend SB 737 to provide that a share of Arlington Park's slot revenue would be diverted to Des Plaines city coffers.
A spokesman for Arlington, Thom Serafin, said the failure of the legislation could mean many horsemen, especially in the harness industry, "will have to move to other states to make a living." He said Arlington "will move ahead with our 2011 meeting and do our best to provide a quality product for racing fans."Beyond that, he said, the future is uncertain.
"The casinos have done everything they can to put horse racing in Illinois out of business," he said, impacting some 30,000 jobs directly or indirectly involved in the industry.
Brian Zander, president of Fairmount Park in downstate Collinsville, near St. Louis, agreed that failure to pass financial-relief legislation for racing could be a death knell.
"If I had to guess, by the time the end of May rolls around, if (there is) no positive action in terms of the horse racing industry, then I find it hard to believe that the majority of horse owners will have any interest in sticking around to race at Fairmount Park," Zander told the Belleville News-Democrat.
Separately, casino interests have filed a long series of legal challenges and appeals, blocking implementation of an earlier law that allocates 3% of the revenue from the state's biggest casinos to race tracks. Some $100 million currently is on hold in a trust fund pending resolution of that case.
The blizzard of court action includes allegations involving former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's alleged attempts to shake down an Illinois harness racing executive for campaign funds. Blagojevich awaits retrial on that and other charges.