Lawmakers already horse-trading for new casino bill

October 17, 2011

by Kristen McQueary

Gov. Pat Quinn’s rejection of a casino bill Monday created a scramble among public officials, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office and lawmakers who are regrouping to assess their next move. 

Quinn’s refusal to go along with several key sections of the gambling bill, and his assured veto, delivered a grave blow to the Illinois horse racing industry. The industry, which includes five tracks long-suffering from revenue losses, was counting on slot machines at their facilities to help rebuild the purses, or winnings, needed to revive the sport.

But Quinn’s move also represented a mere step in the process of political horse trading that underlies all complex, controversial bills in Springfield. Senate sponsor Terry Link (D-Waukegan) was already counter-offering Quinn’s proposal less than three hours after the governor’s news conference.

Link said he will introduce a new casino bill as early as Tuesday that incorporates several of Quinn’s demands—but not all of them. Park City, he said, will remain in the bill as a host town, and so will slots at racetracks, two items Quinn outright rejected.

“At first, the governor said the bill was too top heavy, but he’s come a long way,” Link said.

Indeed, Quinn said “yes” to five new casinos, which still marks a significant expansion of gambling. He rejected calls for more casinos as lieutenant governor.

But Link and the horseracing industry are banking on Quinn changing his mind on slot machines at horseracing tracks, and that gamble remains a major unknown. Allowing racing facilities to install the machines amounts to the creation of five mini-casinos at Arlington Park, Hawthorne Park, Balmoral Park, Fairmount Park and Maywood, in addition to the five casinos in Chicago, Rockford, Danville, Lake County and south Cook County that Quinn said he would support.

Quinn said he didn’t support the idea of naming Park City, which is in Link’s Senate district, as a host town for a new casino. Instead, Quinn said the gaming board should choose a location in Lake County through a competitive bidding process.

“There should be no automatic licenses,” Quinn said.

Dave McCaffrey of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association described Quinn’s announcement as “the first pitch of the seventh game, and the game will play out during the next month.”

Link said slots at racetracks bring more than 20 votes to the bill. Without it, he can’t pass any gambling expansion legislation, he said.

Link is willing to compromise on the regulatory components Quinn suggested. The new bill will more explicitly put the Illinois Gaming Board in charge of all decisions regarding new casinos, including the Chicago-owned facility. A Chicago Casino Development Authority will still be formed to oversee a Chicago casino, but it will report directly to the gaming board, Link said.

The new bill also will allow the gaming board more time and resources to handle the expansion, and the bill will reflect a 26 percent reduction in the number of overall gaming positions. That means fewer places to sit and gamble at each facility. Link would not specify how, exactly, the reduction would be divided among racetracks and proposed new casino locations. But he thought the reduction would appease Quinn’s concerns that the bill, again, would be too big.

“There is an oversaturation of casino gambling in Chicago and other parts of the state,” Quinn said. “We need to scale it back. We must have a much have smaller expansion of gambling.”

Link said he and the governor are getting closer in their negotiations.

“I would say we’re only about a half-mile apart,” Link said.

He said so far, Emanuel’s office is “on board” with the new bill, which could be heard in a specially-called Senate Executive Committee as early as Wednesday. Lawmakers are on break until the first week of veto session Oct. 25, but Link wants to get the new version moving before then.