Support Builds for Expanded Gambling in Illinois

Support is building in the Illinois General Assembly for an end-of-session revision of gaming laws that could include slot machines at race tracks.

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley gave the plan a shot in the arm on Monday (May 10) by announcing he wants a land-based casino in Chicago to help address the city's financial woes. State legislators are eyeing at least three new casinos outside Chicago to deal with their own budget shortfall.

A similar proposal fell flat last year in Springfield when Democrat Gov. Rod Blagojevich, after initially indicating he might support gaming expansion, pulled the plug on the proposal late in the session. Blagojevich has not indicated yet whether he would support the current effort and some lawmakers are waiting for a go-ahead from him before committing themselves.

Key elements of the plan would put a city-owned casino at a to-be-determined location in downtown Chicago and newly licensed riverboat casinos in the south suburbs and north of the Chicago metropolitan area, perhaps in Waukegan. By catering to political powerbrokers in those communities, such a compromise might clear the way for a long-delayed riverboat casino in Rosemont, near O'Hare International Airport.

The Rosemont casino was authorized by a 1999 revision of gaming law and a percentage of its revenue is earmarked for horse racing. However, as operation of that casino comes closer to reality, some lawmakers have expressed unwillingness to divert its revenue stream to race tracks. Track operators have indicated they would be willing to swap the casino share for slot machines on their own premises - which likely will be considered as part of any gaming expansion bill.

In his announcement Monday, Daley called a Chicago casino "a bold step." But, he added, "In these uncertain times, we need to be bold if we are going to move Chicago forward."

He said he has not spoken to Blagojevich about gaming but indicated Senate President Emil Jones has agreed to let the legislation be considered before the spring legislative session ends late this month. Jones, who strongly backs a south suburban casino, said during the weekend he believes the legislation could help balance the state budget without general tax increases.

House Speaker Michael Madigan has been feuding with the governor this spring over the budget but has not taken a position on gaming. A spokesman was quoted earlier as saying, "My plan is to defer any wasting of my breath on gaming until I hear what the governor wants to say."

Daley originally proposed a downtown casino 12 years ago. Ironically, that plan drew strident opposition from the racing industry and "CasiNO" buttons produced by Arlington Park have become collectors items.