The latest blueprints for expanding gaming in Illinois appear to scale back dramatically on aid for the racing industry.
Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, the current lead sponsor of gaming expansion legislation, has introduced two alternate amendments to a plan that went nowhere in last year's legislative session. In one iteration, the bill would authorize only a single new casino in downtown Chicago. The alternate would okay a smaller Chicago casino, five downstate casinos and up to 600 gaming positions for Chicago-area tracks—down from 1,200 positions in the earlier bill.
Rita said racing industry leaders have told him "they need to do something" to deal with a looming funding crisis. His scaled-back plan is "putting money into the industry. Six hundred is better than nothing," he said in an interview with Chicago Tribune political reporter Rick Pearson on WGN-AM.
The revised plans also cater to the Illinois financial crisis "du jour"—serious underfunding of Chicago's public employee pension systems. Rita tinkered with the legislation to direct part of the revenue from new casinos to bolster the sagging pension funds. The situation is so dire that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has won state approval for a massive city property tax increase, which still needs City Council approval.
"These are revenue streams that are not tax increases," Rita said. "I don't know of any others out there."
Rita held hearings on the alternate plans April 16. Gov. Pat Quinn, who twice has vetoed gaming expansion bills, has not taken a position on the new plans. Nor has Emanuel.
The Illinois racing industry this year will run through the last of a one-time pot of money generated by a now-expired tax on the state's largest casinos. Barring an infusion of some type of new revenue, there will be significant downward pressure on purse structures and racing dates.
However, tucked away in the fine print of the broader expansion bill is language that would mandate a minimum number of races and racing dates for Illinois Thoroughbred and Standardbred tracks.
The legislature's spring session is scheduled to run through the end of May.