Illinois Governor Floats Idea of Gaming Expansion

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, after long opposition, has opened the door to the expansion of gaming. But his education-funding proposal doesn't specifically include the new casinos and support for racetracks that would make it politically viable in the state House and Senate.

During a March 31 speech at a suburban high school, Blagojevich proposed doubling the number of gaming positions at the state's existing riverboat casinos to 24,000. He said that would generate about $300 million in new revenue for the state in the coming year.

Nine riverboat casinos currently operate in Illinois. One more license is dormant as legal battles rage over plans to move that operation to the Chicago suburb of Rosemont. Under current state law, if that license were to be put into operation, the state's racetracks would be entitled to a percentage of its earnings.

The governor's sketchy proposal didn't address the issue of the 10th casino or propose allowing slot machines at racetracks. Track operators last year suggested on-track slots as a tradeoff for their existing stake in the remaining license.

Two years ago, Blagojevich deflated a planned major expansion of gaming in Illinois late in the legislative session, saying he opposed "expansion" of gaming. That plan would have allowed slots at tracks. In announcing his new proposal, he said: "I have said consistently for several years that I have an open mind to something that's limited and targeted, that doesn't alter the landscape of the state."

To gain traction in the legislature, any gaming expansion will have to address plans to open a new, land-based casino in Chicago. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Senate President Emil Jones--the governor's only consistent legislative ally--support the plan.

In response to Blagojevich's new plan, Jones said he would push ahead with his own legislation to authorize new casinos in Chicago and in northern and southern suburbs. Opponents said they would fight any new gaming positions or casinos.