All eyes on Quinn as gambling bill hangs in the balance

August 18, 2011

By Sean Crawford

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(Flickr/Michael Kapple)

Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn is sending more signals that he wants changes to a controversial gambling measure. For Quinn, the lobbying has never let up since lawmakers passed a casino expansion package in the spring. Both those for and against more gambling have let him know where they stand.  Quinn has also been clear of his feelings about the legislation.

"Right now I don't think there's any question it's a top heavy bill. That's for sure," Quinn said earlier this week.

It would add a casino in Chicago and four other cities, place slot machines at horse tracks and Chicago's two major airports and let existing casinos grow even larger. Lawmakers crafted the plan to gain the necessary votes, which it barely did. If something were taken out, there's a good chance it all collapses. Legislators passed a comprehensive gambling bill in May that includes the first-ever Chicago casino, but it has yet to reach Gov. Pat Quinn's desk.

Yet, on Governor's Day at the State Fair in Springfield, Quinn began to chip away, specifically at a provision to allow slots at the fairgrounds.

"Harness racing has been at the fair for a long time. But when you put in slot machines, that's a totally different situation," he said. "I was never excited about that."

Quinn reiterated support for a Chicago casino but says it has to be done properly. He called for more regulatory oversight.  A sponsor of the gaming legislation said too many changes will jeopardize the package.

Meantime, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has already said how he would like to spend some of the money a casino would bring to the city. He has said the cash would go toward infrastructure improvements around the city.

As for Illinois' horse racing industry, some in the business see the legislation as possibly its last best hope. For years, horse tracks have watched gamblers drift away to casinos. That loss of customers and money has resulted in smaller purses and, some would say, a decline in the quality of Illinois racing. Rita Williams of Mercer County, Director of the Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association, said several other states allow slot machines at horse tracks and Illinois needs to follow suit.

"We need to be on a level playing field with other states.  The other states that have horse racing, the horse industry and horse farms.  All we're asking is to be on a level playing field with them," she said.

Williams said breeders, trainers and others involved in Illinois horse racing have begun to shift their focus to other states where they can earn more money. Horse racing advocates and others supporting the gambling legislation were at the state fairgrounds calling on the governor to support it.