A year that began with expectations of a bright new day for Illinois racing through gaming expansion has been reduced to a flickering hope that state lawmakers will provide a last-minute reprieve from the sport's virtual execution.
Without action during a one-day session on Jan. 29, the Illinois Racing Board will be without funding to regulate a full season of live racing and will implement a doomsday schedule.
Under that scenario, Hawthorne Race Course's live schedule would be trimmed from this year's 101 programs to just 15; Arlington Park's from 89 to 49; and downstate Fairmount Park from 69 to just 10 programs.
The heart of the problem is that authorization for advance-deposit wagering in Illinois expires at the end of January. Taxes on ADW are the primary support mechanism for the IRB.
All parties agreed in late November to proposed legislation that would have fixed the funding shortfall. But that measure, despite assurances it would be considered, was not called for a vote at a Dec. 3 special session of the legislature.
Chairman William Berry told commissioners at Tuesday's (Dec. 17) meeting he is hopeful lawmakers will turn their attention to racing long enough on Jan. 29 to vote on the bill.
"I have every assurance it is not being ignored," Berry said, adding senate president John Cullerton "called me and said, 'I will call this bill on the 29th.' "
He added that Gov. Pat Quinn's office has told him the governor will sign the bill "as presented" if it clears both houses of the legislature.
Berry said he has not spoken to powerful house speaker Michael Madigan. "But there will be efforts made" to enlist his support, he added.
The IRB scheduled a Jan. 31 session to consider what to do after legislative action—or inaction.
"I expect Jan. 31 is going to be a very exciting meeting," Berry said. "We have every hope and every expectation that a full racing schedule will be run in 2014."
Lacking ADW authorization past January, however, the board approved renewal of the current licensees only through the first month of 2014.
Even that action was made contingent on resolution of an ongoing dispute between Churchill Downs Inc., which operates the Twin Spires ADW platform, and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, which must consent to licensing. Berry asked the parties to work that out before Dec. 31.
Highlighting the importance of the ADW revenue to the racing board's operations, the commissioners also certified pari-mutuel tax credits for each of the state's tracks based on their property tax payments. The credits total more than $3.34 million and are applied at the start of the calendar year. That means tracks do not start paying pari-mutuel taxes until they have exhausted the credit. In the case of the largest payer, Arlington Park, that might not be until September or October, the board staff said.
In other words, said executive director Marc Laino, "Beginning Jan. 1, the IRB will receive no tax revenue from any bricks and mortar facility. Only from ADW."
The dire straits in which the industry is becalmed are a far cry from hopes early in the year that gaming expansion legislation would permit the installation of slot machines at the state's race tracks, generating substantial new revenue.
The General Assembly twice has passed gaming bills, including slots for tracks, only to have them vetoed by Quinn. The governor said the bills needed tighter ethical provisions and that gaming expansion would have to wait until the state's public employee pension crisis was handled.
Lawmakers' attention was focused solely on a pension-reform measure during the Dec. 3 session, pushing the racing measure to the side. The pension bill passed narrowly and was signed into law.