Another Push for Illinois Gaming Expansion

By Bob Kieckhefer

The push is on again for legislation to expand gambling in Illinois, including allowing slot machines at the state's racetracks.

Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed a bill passed during the 2012 spring legislative session that would have permitted slots at tracks as part of an expansion that also would authorize new casinos in the Chicago Loop and in several downstate communities.

Illinois racetracks claim slots are crucial to their survival in a marketplace in which most surrounding states provide that kind of supplement to racing revenue. Sponsors and supporters, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, are pushing for a deal that could get the issue resolved during the legislative session starting Nov. 27.

Quinn, who has backed off earlier opposition to slots at tracks, said he believed the bill sent to him lacked sufficient safeguards against corruption and needed to more carefully earmark casino proceeds for schools. However, he since has made it clear he is using gaming expansion as a bargaining chip in the battle to win passage of substantial reform of state and local governments' pension systems–a contentious, multibillion-dollar issue weighing down the state's budget.

"My No. 1 issue in the legislature is getting pension reform," Quinn said the week of Nov. 11. The governor wants that done before the current General Assembly expires in early January.

Meanwhile, Emanuel is pushing strongly for approval of a Chicago casino and promising to use the money for education. But he acknowledged this week a deal will have to include more than one issue and will require cooperation between parties and branches of government.

"I think it's time for Springfield to work on a number of subjects," the mayor said, "and the governor has to be a part of that."

Pension reform has stalled because Democrats oppose modifications of benefits for current state and local government employees while Republicans oppose shifting suburban and downstate teachers' pension benefits from the state to local districts.

If gaming expansion is contingent on a pension reform deal, there is a glimmer of hope. The entire legislature was up for re-election this year after redistricting, and dozens of lawmakers either retiring or leaving after election defeats will troop back to Springfield for the fall session Nov. 27.

Those "lame ducks" traditionally make up a pool of potential votes for difficult legislation. In a similar circumstance two years ago, the "lame duck" session passed a 67% increase in the state's personal income tax.

Emanuel's comments indicated it is likely he and gaming supporters will seek a deal with Quinn as a first step in the process. Failing that, sponsors could try to override the governor's veto. That would be an uphill battle, especially in the Senate.

Communities outside Chicago, hoping for approval of the legislation, already are lining up to apply for a new casino license. Country Club Hills, near the intersection of two Interstate highways in the far southwest Chicago suburbs, announced Nov. 13 a deal with Cannery Casino Resorts, based in Nevada, to build a casino in its community.

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