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Racing Issues on Illinois Legislature Agenda

Issues critical to the future of Illinois horse racing hung in the balance May 28.

By Bob Kieckhefer

Issues critical to the future of Illinois horse racing hung in the balance May 28 as the legislature entered the final scheduled week of its spring session.

A dramatic expansion of gaming, which includes slot machines for racetracks and a new downtown casino for Chicago, was undergoing corrective surgery in a House committee with the hope that compromise language can be found to satisfy Gov. Pat Quinn, who vetoed two earlier versions.

A separate bill to reinstate advance deposit wagering passed the House last weekendbut with a political problem attached.

The legislature is scheduled to adjourn its spring session May 31. Also remaining on the table are the state budget, proposed fixes for massively underfunded state employee pension systems, and a court-mandated "concealed carry" gun law and marriage equality.

The gaming expansion bill passed the Senate earlier in the session, but that body would need to approve any changes made in the House. As sponsors bargain over potential amendments, various interest groups are trying to carve themselves into the projected new gaming revenue stream.

Quinn wants strict state oversight of the Chicago casino, while Mayor Rahm Emanuel is lobbying for city regulation.

Representatives of the governor reportedly were working with House staff on drafting language, which supporters of the bill regarded as a hopeful sign.

A potential fly in the ointment, however, emerged during the holiday weekend as the House approved a bill that would restore authorization for ADW in Illinois. ADW authorization expired at the dawn of 2013, and legislation to fix the problem has languished in a House committee since January.

The new bill would reinstate ADW and hold harmless two providers that continued to provide the service to Illinois accounts for a short time after Jan. 1.

But, proving once again that nothing is ever simple in the Illinois statehouse, the House added to the ADW bill a provision to release $110 million in casino taxes originally targeted for the state's racetracks. The money has been flowing for more than a year into an earmarked fund but could not be released because lawmakers had not passed an appropriation bill.

To win release of the money, the tracks grudgingly agreed to settle for approximately 20 cents on the dollar, taking $22.5 million with the balance going to a fund earmarked for school infrastructure improvements statewide. The tax will remain in force, and proceeds will continue to go to the Horse Racing Fund.

The issue is that all parties are not on board with allocating the bulk of the existing fund balance to school building improvements. If the bill passes with that provision, it could face an uncertain future on Quinn's desk. Or, it could be held in the Senate as a bargaining chip in negotiations on the larger bill.

ADW taxes are a primary funding source for the Illinois Racing Board, which has said it may have to curtail some operations or even vacate racing dates if that revenue stream is not restored. The IRB delayed approving Standardbred meets at state and county fairs, saying it could not be sure of the money needed to regulate those events.