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Lawmaker rolling the dice again with gambling expansion measure

By   /   May 24, 2011  /   No Comments

By Mary J. Cristobal, Illinois Statehouse News

SPRINGFIELD — Some of the big names in Illinois politics are all in, and the state might get lucky this year with another gambling expansion measure.

State Rep. Lou Lang, who has introduced similar bills in the past, is putting his cards on the table — again. Under his new proposal, five casinos would be built, one each in Danville, Rockford, Park City, somewhere in south suburbs and then the city of Chicago. Ten riverboats would expand and horse-race tracks around Chicago would have allow slot machines.

“It’s not about gambling; it’s about economic development and job creation,” said the Democrat from Skokie.

Former state Rep. Bob Molaro, who represents the horse-racing industry, said Lang’s bill has a 50-50 chance of passing, because “the time is now,” and Illinois needs that extra influx of revenue.

“You’re talking about an extra $400 (million) to $500 million just from (a) Chicago (casino) going to the state treasury, education or debt relief — and that’s something that we can’t pass up,” Molaro said.

Chicago’s newly elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants a casino in downtown Chicago, as does Gov. Pat Quinn, who said he wants to “invest in education, bring in more revenue and create jobs.”

However, existing casinos are concerned about competition with additional slot machines at race tracks, said Tom Swoik, executive director of Illinois Casino Gaming Association. 

ICGA is a nonprofit that represents seven out of nine riverboat casinos in Illinois. 

"The gambling industry has been down, so why would you create more venues? You’re not creating more gamblers," Swoik said.

Gaming revenue has been on a recent downward spiral. This past year, riverboat casinos raked in $383 million, compared to $699 million in 2005, while horse racing brought in only $7 million, compare to $12 million in 2005, according to Illinois’ Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.

COGFA, a commission created by the General Assembly, provides research and information about state and national economics, revenue projections and operations to the Legislature, according to its website.

Illinois’ money managers, meanwhile, oppose gambling expansion, which some argue would bring in additional state revenue. State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka has said she supports casinos, unlike state Treasurer Dan Rutherford.

“My belief is you do not take and make major public policy decisions strictly on what the revenue that you intend to generate. … I don’t want Chicago to be a Las Vegas,” Rutherford said.

State Rep. Patrick Verschoore said he supports the gambling expansion, because “it would be a great revenue enhancer for the state.”

The Democrat from Rock Island said he is not concerned about competition because Jumer’s Casino in his district is about 180 miles away from Chicago.

But State Rep. Keith Farnham, D-Elgin, is not sold on the gambling expansion.

“It would have an effect on the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin, which is very important to our community,” he said. “It helps us through the Grand Victoria Foundation, (which) funds social services in our community, so I’d have a problem with that.”

The measure will be discussed in a House Executive Committee by Thursday. The spring legislative session ends on May 31.

Lang, the measure’s sponsor, is taking chances.

“We have a week left, some people say, ‘It’s only a week left.’ I look at it as a week of opportunity to get something done that would really benefit Illinois,” he said.

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