Gaming Reform Package on Hold in Illinois

The Illinois legislature adjourned its "overtime" spring session without acting on a package of gaming reforms that could have brought slot machines to racetracks. But key political figures still have gaming on their agenda, and there still is a pressing need for new government revenue. So the issue may not be dead for 2004.

Rather than shore up state finances by generating new revenue from casinos and other gaming expansion, Gov. Rod Blagojevich and legislative leaders compromised on spending cuts and some relatively minor tweaks in taxation formulas. The package still leaves the state short of money.

In addition, the city of Chicago is facing a huge budget deficit that has Mayor Richard Daley considering a politically unpopular property tax increase. The tax increase would not be on the table had the legislature approved a new land-based casino in downtown Chicago that was part of the gaming package.

Daley and his chief legislative ally, Senate President Emil Jones, both said they would continue to push gaming expansion as a way to fund state programs that were hurt by the spring-session cutbacks. Blagojevich opposes a Chicago casino.

"I don't care if one person disagrees with me," Daley told the Chicago Sun-Times. "It (the casino issue) is bigger than me. It's bigger than the governor or anyone else."

The legislature will reconvene after the November election to consider vetoes and other pending business. Leaders of the Illinois horse racing industry, while discouraged at their inability to win approval for on-track slots during the spring session, unanimously said they would continue to support the proposal during the fall session.

Meanwhile, the 2005 Thoroughbred racing season in Illinois probably will look familiar. Arlington Park, Hawthorne Race Course, and the National Jockey Club all filed applications with the Illinois Racing Board for dates similar to those granted for 2004.

The NJC, which has operated at Hawthorne since Sportsman's Park closed, asked for 65 days of racing, from Feb. 11-May 17. Arlington applied for 104 dates, from May 6-Sept. 25. Hawthorne seeks 73 days, from Sept. 23-Dec. 31.

Fairmount Park, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Mo., requested 150 days of racing throughout the year. Hawthorne also asked for 99 Standardbred dates in 2005. It was granted 55 days this year.