Illinois Senate Passes Gaming Expansion Bill

Legislation authorizes slots at the racetracks and five new casinos.

The Illinois Senate has passed a gaming expansion bill that would allow slot machines at the state's racetracks.

Also to be allowed by the bill are five new casinos, including a land-based facility in downtown Chicago that is high on Mayor Rahm Emanuel's wish list.

The measure cleared the Senate late May 1 on a vote of 32-20 with three senators in the chamber not voting on the bill. At least one of those senators who did not vote said the new gaming revenue should do more for the black community, including funding programs to address mental health issues, youth violence, foreclosures, and job training.

The legislation now goes to the Illinois House, where its fate could depend on the resolution of a host of other contentious issues, including pension reform and a state budget.

Five new casinos and 1,200 slot games at the racetracks would generate about $1.2 billion in one-time revenue for the state from initial license and other fees, and about $269 million in recurring revenue once the bill is fully implemented, according to a legislative analysis.

The Illinois General Assembly has passed gaming expansion plans twice in the past two years only to have them vetoed by Gov. Pat Quinn. Sponsor Sen. Terry Link and racing industry officials said this year's version includes many of the "ethics" changes demanded by the governor. It also includes specific requests for how the new gaming revenue is to be spent—in depressed areas, on Latino issues, renovation of the State Fairgrounds, purses for American Quarter Horse racing, and other special interests.

Sponsors dropped from the bill provisions that would have authorized Internet gaming in Illinois. That provision fueled a dust-up between the owner of Arlington Park, Churchill Downs Inc., and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. The ITHA charged that CDI wanted to freeze horsemen out of the revenue it would derive from its Internet gaming sites.

Illinois tracks for the past two seasons have been augmenting purses and operating costs with so-called "impact fees," money from the state's largest casinos. Earlier legislation mandated those payments and the tracks won a long court battle to actually get the money. Those funds, however, largely will be exhausted by the end of 2013 and, lacking a new revenue source such as slot machines, the industry would face economic crisis.

Emanuel took a more visible role in the debate over the current bill than he has in the past. After the Senate cleared the bill, he released a prepared video documenting how he intends to use proceeds from a Chicago casino to improve the city's schools.