Racetrack Slots Not Dead Yet in Illinois

No one in Illinois government seems to like the idea of slot machines at racetracks, but the proposal remained on the table as the legislature's spring session went into overtime in an attempt to find new revenue sources to solve a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall.

"One day it's good news, one day it's not," said National Jockey Club president Charles Bidwill III. "I think we still have a very good shot."

Racetrack slots would generate substantial revenue for the state, as well as the racing industry. Estimates differ widely, based on number of machines authorized and other factors.

The slots-at-tracks proposal clings to life in part because a new riverboat casino that could serve as a state revenue source remains drydocked by administrative and legal entanglements. That casino also is slated to provide funding for horse racing, but track officials clearly are more eager for their own action.

"A cut of the casino almost looks like a handout," Bidwill said. "With the slots, we have to generate the revenue ourselves. We have to build the slot clubs or whatever they would be."

Hawthorne Race Course officials also emphasized that having on-track slots would give tracks greater control of their revenue source than if they depended on a percentage of the revenue from a new casino.

Gov. George Ryan, who has had little luck in closing a budget gap of nearly $2 billion, said new slot machines anywhere "are a bad idea." But he acknowledged they could raise substantial revenue. "Right now, we need to raise a lot of money," the governor said.

Senate president James "Pate" Philip, historically an opponent of new gaming proposals, earlier announced he wouldn't stand in the way of racetrack slots as a revenue measure. The legislature missed its scheduled adjournment date of May 17 and is expected to work until the end of May on budget issues.