Analysis: Why Quinn may veto gambling expansion bill

June 2, 2011

What's Gov. Pat Quinn's next move?

That's the question political oddsmakers are debating now that Illinois lawmakers have doubled down on a major gambling expansion bill.

Despite his concerns about the measure, does Quinn fold and join the forces in favor of tripling the number of gaming positions in the state?  Or does he go-for-broke and reject the proposal outright?  His comments in recent days have provided mixed signals on both fronts.

Quinn stopped well short of promising any specific action on the measure during a lengthy exchange with reporters at the State Capitol building in Springfield on Wednesday, but he also went out of his way to reiterate his dissatisfaction with the scope of the bill and the forces that produced it.

The measure would allow five additional casinos to be established in Illinois, including one in Chicago - long considered a 'holy grail' for both the gaming and convention industries in Illinois.

In addition, it would allow Illinois' existing casinos to expand their gaming positions and, for the first time, would allow slot machines at horse racing tracks and Chicago airports.

"Any person with common sense would say that's excessive," Quinn said on Wednesday. "Illinois is not for the gamblers.  It's for the people.  And my job is to make sure the people come first."

Quinn vowed to put each page of the legislation "under a microscope" and said if bills are passed that aren't in the public's interest, it's his job to step in.

"I'm here to stop them, and if the legislature doesn't do it, I will," Quinn insisted.

Now, that could simply be 'tough talk' before he eventually signs the bill as is.  If so, it wouldn't be the first time that the incumbent governor signed on to a proposal after previously voicing opposition to it.  And certainly, Quinn's rhetoric has softened somewhat in the past 72 hours.  

Nevertheless, he strongly reiterated concerns on Wednesday that the measure as currently written is too heavily tilted toward the gaming industry and special interests for his liking.

'Never let a serious crisis go to waste'

Over the years, the chief champion of gaming interests in the General Assembly has been State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie).  As longtime watchers of Springfield know, proposals to expand gambling in Illinois are nothing new for Lang or the General Assembly

But where previous efforts have failed to attract enough support from lawmakers, this one had both the timing and the scale to make it more appealing - a little something for everyone, as they say.  And it also had the active backing of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

It was Emanuel who once famously said, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," and advocates of the bill used the state's worsening fiscal crisis as opportunity to highlight the cash such a proposal could generate for the state: $1.5 billion in one-time revenues, and an additional $500 million in annual revenues.

That's a hard payout to walk away from these days, even for lawmakers who've been opposed to gambling expansion in the past.

With rising operating costs and as much as $8 billion dollars in unpaid debt, the state desperately needs solutions for its fiscal woes - and the options are limited.

The General Assembly has already approved a controversial increase in the state's personal and corporate income tax rate; the Illinois Senate recently rejected Quinn's borrowing proposal; and Quinn and other lawmakers have shown an unwillingness thus far to sign on to deeper cuts to the state's budget.

So even though Quinn finds elements of this legislation unpalatable and excessive, he knows he doesn't have many other revenue options available to him. 

Enter: An amendatory veto.

That suggests an outright veto of the proposal may be too big of a gamble for Quinn.  But reading between the lines of his news conference with reporters on Wednesday, it appears he may be strongly considering something else: an amendatory veto.

The Illinois constitution grants the governor four different kinds of veto powers, far more than the President of the United States. Those options include:

1) A total veto - rejecting the entire bill outright.

2) An amendatory veto - which allows the governor to suggest changes to the text of the bill.

3) A line item veto - which allows a governor to strike a specific appropriation in a spending bill.

4) A reduction veto - which allows a governor to reduce the amount appropriated in a spending bill.

An amendatory veto would allow Quinn to scale down aspects of the bill while preserving elements of the measure that he finds least objectionable - and most helpful from a revenue standpoint. 

In the past, Quinn hasn't ruled out a Chicago casino, so perhaps an amendatory veto might preserve that component, while reducing the overall number of new casinos from five.  Or maybe he'll curb the expansion of slot machines to Chicago airports.  Or all of the above.

Making such a move doesn't come without risks, of course, but Quinn's rhetoric suggests it's something he's strongly considering.

At one point during the news conference on Wednesday, Quinn launched into his familiar reformer-mode by recalling the veto powers available to the governor, noting that twice before, the citizens of Illinois have reaffirmed their support for those powers through public referenda. 

"That's something the public wants the governor to have," he said.  "And sometimes you have to use that."