Lobbying efforts on gambling bill aimed at Gov. Pat Quinn

June 9, 2011

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(WBEZ/file)
Gov. Pat Quinn is the new focus of lobbying efforts to approve an expansion of gambling in Illinois.

For months as a gambling bill moved through the state legislature, swarms of lobbyists alternately charmed lawmakers and twisted arms.

Now, they are working on Gov. Pat Quinn, who controls the fate of the bill.

Towns including Rockford and Danville are organizing letter-writing campaigns, hosting rallies and making use of social networking to pressure Quinn to sign the legislation. Horseracing tracks, chambers of commerce, restaurant owners –even farmers who supply horse hay —are imploring the governor to keep the gambling bill intact, even though Quinn has said it’s too big.

The legislation approved last month would authorize five new casinos, including one for Chicago, along with slot machines at Chicago airports and at horseracing tracks. The bill would allow a new racing facility at the Illinois State Fairgrounds and would permit the state’s existing 10 casinos to expand. If approved, the legislation would represent the state’s biggest increase in gambling since 1990.

The bill is a 400-page anthology of political horse trades that supporters, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, say could unravel with too many changes. Quinn has not said he would veto the bill, but he called it “top heavy” and “excessive.”   

“It’s a tightrope,” said Tony Somone, executive director of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association, which is counting on the bill to save the horseracing industry. “If you eliminate any parts of that bill, you would lose support and the whole thing could go down in flames. Quite frankly, it scares the hell out of me.”

If Quinn amends the bill, the House and Senate must approve his changes. But removing proposed sites in Chicago, Rockford, Danville, the south suburbs or Park City, or dropping the racing components, would  jeopardize support from lawmakers representing those interests.

“I control the bill. I’m the only one who can call the bill, and I’m the only one who moves the bill,” said state Sen. Terry Link (D-Waukegan), whose district includes Park City. “Do you really think I would allow the bill to move forward without mine being in it?”

Multiply Link’s stance by 95—the number of lawmakers who voted for the bill because it includes something for their districts -- and you can understand how changes could sink it. It received the minimum 30 votes to advance from the Senate and only four extra votes in the House.

Link said he plans to meet with Quinn during the next few weeks to discuss the possibility of follow-up legislation to address Quinn’s concerns. The goal would be to convince Quinn to sign the bill on the condition a so-called trailer bill might scale down the number of venues. Quinn already said he doesn't like the idea of horseracing at the state fairgrounds, one potential casualty.

“Like any other negotiation, I’m not going to play it out in the media, but we will sit down and talk about it,” Link said.

Opponents of the bill said it was too big. Some regularly vote against gambling legislation on moral grounds. And others voted to protect existing casinos in their communities that would be hurt by the increased competition.

“It was too much, too soon,” state Sen. Susan Garrett (D-Lake Forest) said of her “no” vote. “I would consider supporting a casino in Chicago, but I don’t see the need for a 50 percent increase in casinos statewide.”

The decision before Quinn is a tough one. Towns like Rockford and Danville represent some of the state’s hardest-hit economies. Rockford, a manufacturing town nestled along the Rock River and bordering Wisconsin, holds one of the state’s highest unemployment rates.  That’s why Mayor Larry Morrissey traveled to Springfield last month to meet with Quinn, Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) and House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago).

“As mayor, one of the things I’ve learned since I was elected in 2005 is that if you want to get anything done in Springfield, you have to be there,” Morrissey said. “Economic development doesn’t happen with magic.”

It’s why towns like Danville, near the Indiana state line, created a Facebook page to spur a letter-writing campaign. The town also is hosting a rally to get Quinn’s attention. Residents don’t want Danville to get dumped from the bill.

“I don’t have a feel for what he might do,” Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said of Quinn. “I’m not sure you can take anything out of the bill. It’s like a house of cards. You remove any card and in the end, the entire bill may tumble.”