Is casino legislation losing momentum?
Despite delays and debunked predictions—and a never-ending wait for Gov. Pat Quinn’s decision on a gambling expansion bill—supporters of expanded gambling in Illinois say they expect to find common ground by Oct. 25, the first day of the fall veto session.
The bill, stalled for months due to policy differences, political infighting and Quinn’s reluctance to increase gambling venues, remains a top priority.
But the waiting game may be ending soon. Unless Quinn outlines his concerns “in short order,” legislative leaders will present him with their own version of a clean-up gaming bill, known as a trailer bill, that will tighten control over the proposed Chicago-owned casino, according to State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), House sponsor of the bill. Other revisions may be coming as well, Lang said.
The options will be limited: Any change risks losing a vote on a bill that was a delicate balance of interests among Chicago, struggling cities such as Danville and Rockford that want new casinos, the horse racing industry and places like Joliet and Aurora where existing casinos fought the increased competition.
An amendatory veto, which would allow Quinn to change the bill and send it back to lawmakers for a re-vote, would be an unwise choice, Lang said.
“Substantial changes would put the speaker in a position of weighing compliance with the (Illinois) constitution on the amendatory veto,” said Lang, who is House Speaker Michael Madigan’s floor leader. “That’s not a good way to go. If the governor thinks we’re going to have substantial changes by way of amendatory veto, I think he’s mistaken.”
Whether lawmakers’ power play will work remains to be seen. Quinn is occupied by daily state budget pressures. He announced Thursday a series of employee layoffs and facility closings that also will be a top item of negotiation during the fall veto session.
For now, the gambling bill that narrowly passed the legislature in May is not on Quinn’s desk. In an unusual legislative gambit, Senate President John Cullerton is holding the bill in his chamber, even though it passed, for fear the governor will veto it. And by delaying, he is buying time for an ongoing negotiation. Once the bill reaches Quinn, he must act within 60 days or it becomes law.
Lang, along withSenate sponsor Terry Link, a Democrat from Waukegan, and Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, have been waiting for more specifics from the governor on which parts of the bill make him uncomfortable, but so far the governor has not been forthcoming.
Lang and other proponents of the gambling expansion bill spent months crafting legislation with the right ingredients to win approval from a diverse General Assembly. The bill passed the House with only five votes to spare. It passed the Senate with the minimum 30 votes. If Quinn vetoes the bill, lawmakers would need to override his action with supermajorities in both chambers. Supporters would need six more votes in the House and six more in the Senate—likely an impossible threshold on such a controversial piece of legislation..
The more realistic option is to craft a trailer bill that addresses Quinn’s concerns while keeping the original bill’s vote intact. Starting over, bill sponsors said, is not an option. Many lawmakers who voted against the bill opposed it on moral grounds or voted “no” to protect existing casinos in their districts, which would be hurt by the competition. Ten casinos already exist in Illinois in Elgin, Aurora, East Peoria, East St. Louis, Metropolis, Rock Island, Alton and two in Joliet. The newest casino opened in July in Des Plaines.
Other lawmakers who voted against the bill feared more gambling would not play well in their districts. Those minds would be difficult to change, especially in an election year when they are running in new territories. The boundaries of all House and Senate districts will change for the 2012 election cycle because of redistricting.
When lawmakers return to Springfield this fall for a two-week veto session, some of them may not know whether they are facing competition next year.
“During the periods of time we’ll be in Springfield for veto session, the time to circulate nominating petitions (to get on the ballot) will still be going on. So some legislators will be a little nervous about that,” Lang said.
Even a follow-up gambling bill addressing Quinn’s concerns could be tricky. Just a few cold feet would topple the coalition Lang and Link created last spring to pass the original bill.
For example, Link was able to bring reluctant Republicans on board, including state Sen. Larry Bomke of Springfield, by adding a year-round horse-racing component at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. Lang pulled House colleague Luis Arroyo, Democrat of Chicago, into the “yes” column by promising a stream of casino revenue to a fund that would help homeowners facing foreclosure.
They convinced downstate representatives who would not benefit directly from expanded gambling to support it anyway by committing new money to county fairs, a source of pride for farming communities. They included a Danville casino to the bill, which added one senator and two state representatives as supporters.
As a result, the bill is a delicate pyramid of political trades. Any significant changes from Quinn would be a major setback.
“The timeframe is veto session or game over, right?” said Tony Somone, executive director of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association, who says the bill is the last hope to save his industry. “I think we’ve showed the governor how our industry is on life support and we need him to sign the bill as is.”
In addition to policy differences—Quinn said from the beginning the bill was too big—political infighting has slowed it down.
Quinn and Cullerton share a mutual lack of trust. One flare-up in May prompted Cullerton to call the governor “irrelevant” during state budget negotiations. Cullerton has refused to send Quinn the gambling bill until they reach a compromise, fearing Quinn might remind the legislature of his relevance by vetoing it outright. The bill is trapped in limbo between Cullerton’s desk and Quinn’s indecision.
The legislation would create the nation’s first city-owned casino in Chicago, along with four others around the state. The measure also would allow the state’s five horseracing tracks and Chicago’s two airports to add slot machines, and it would allow existing casinos to expand.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who wants the bill, cranked up the pressure on Quinn several times already and is planning more. The Chicago City Council on Thursday approved a resolution supporting a new casino. In mid-summer, Emanuel publicly unveiledthe projects a new casino would fund and organized a news conference of minority aldermen who called on Quinn to sign the bill. Emanuel also is expected to drum up more publicity by working with downstate groups who want Quinn to sign the bill.
Last week, Emanuel hosted a tour for General Assembly members, bringing them on Chicago Transit Authority buses to the National Teachers Academy to meet with Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, followed by a visit to the 911 Emergency Communications Center. They ended the visit at a Millennium Park reception. The Chicago casino wasn’t an explicit topic of conversation, but the tour gave Emanuel a chance to outline the city’s needs.
Like all of Emanuel’s moves, the timing was strategic. Lawmakers next month will be addressing the casino bill, however it plays out. Emanuel desperately wants it. The projected revenue boost for the city alone is an estimated $650 million annually, a huge cash cow for a city facing its own budget pressures.