Illinois Fiscal Woes Bring Talk of Racetrack Slots

The latest unlikely solution for a huge Illinois state budget crisis: Slot machines at racetracks.

The state faces a budget shortfall of about $2 billion, with no politically acceptable solution in sight. Proposals that have been floated include hiking the tax on the state;s nine existing riverboat casinos, and increasing the number of gaming stations each of those casinos is allowed to operate.

Racing executives and lobbyists have been whispering for more than a week that more casino gaming would seriously damage racing, but that putting slots at tracks might both address that problem and add even more revenue for the state.

Revenue estimates are largely guesswork. Supporters maximize them to make the proposal more attractive to budget-makers. Opponents also maximize them -- to draw attention to the impact of additional gaming on problem gamblers.

The slots-at-tracks issue became public May 15 when powerful Senate President James "Pate" Philip said he wouldn't necessarily oppose the concept. Philip has never voted for expanded gaming of any kind. But given the dysfunction in state budgeting, even his statement of "non-opposition" was sufficient notice to put the issue at least on the stove, if not the front burner.

The debate is compounded by ongoing negotiations over a 10th floating casino that would pump tens of millions of dollars into racing and hundreds of millions into the state general revenue fund. The Illinois Gaming Board has rejected a license application from the current ownership group, and also nixed several plans that would let current investors in that project sell out to a more politically acceptable owner.

While tracks are eager to get that new casino approved and operating, some believe it would be an uncertain long-term funding source, and that on-track slots would be a more manageable and dependable solution to their budget woes.

Another complication: Proposed consolidation of Sportsman's Park and Hawthorne Race Course probably would require legislation to iron out issues involving off-track betting parlor ownership and simulcasting revenue. Lawmakers are not eager to vote on any gaming-related matters in an election year, much less multiple bills.

Action on the 10th casino may come within days. Legislative efforts to solve the budget problems likely will drag on through the end of May.