Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, in a major reversal of form, has announced he will veto any expansion of gaming in Illinois, including a plan to put slot machines at racetracks.
Chicago-area tracks have been paying purses on the assumption they will benefit from slot machine revenue this year. If the governor is serious about his threat and makes it stick, purse accounts would be at serious risk.
Blagojevich since his election last November has professed to have an "open mind" about expansion of gaming if it's needed to bolster sagging state finances. Though the governor did not specifically propose gaming expansion in his budget, every serious budget proposal currently under consideration by the legislature relies on new gaming revenue.
At a news conference May 19, Blagojevich said: "Gambling is not a magic wand." He promised to veto legislation creating new casinos, expanding gaming stations at existing casinos, or putting slots at tracks.
Lawmakers from both parties were caught off guard and responded angrily.
"I'm not going to back off," said Rep. Lou Lang, chairman of the House Gaming Committee and sponsor of a massive gaming-expansion package including slots for tracks.
Senate President Emil Jones, a Chicago Democrat, also was surprised by the announcement and said the governor has not seriously discussed the issue with him or other legislative leaders.
Racetracks currently are entitled to a share in the revenue from an already authorized 10th riverboat casino targeted for the Chicago area. Construction and operation of that boat, however, has been tied up in court battles for years. In recent weeks, there have been indications the legal mess may be unraveled quickly and Blagojevich as indicated he would approve the sale of the existing license to a new group.
The tracks had hoped to swap that revenue for slot machines. If they are forced to stick with the status quo, it is doubtful they will see any new revenue during the current calendar year.
As always in Illinois state government, it is possible a compromise will be reached before the legislature's scheduled adjournment at the end of May.