Gambling bill's future is iffy

Gambling bill's future is iffy

Questions abound on the status of expanded gambling in Illinois.

Nine months ago, Gov. Pat Quinn and legislators were engaged in a showdown over the details of gambling expansion.

Legislators wanted a major expansion of gambling in Illinois while Quinn supported an expansion considerably less dramatic than that proposed in legislation passed by the House and Senate. Quinn threatened to veto the legislation, but did not get the chance because Senate President John Cullerton never sent him a bill to veto.

The General Assembly recently passed another gambling-expansion bill, one aimed at addressing some of Quinn's objections. But even though he's balking over the details, there are signs that Quinn and legislators could still come to an agreement. If not, it's possible that legislators could override a Quinn veto in the post-election session of the General Assembly.

There is, however, much more confusion than clarity surrounding expanded gambling.

"The planets are aligned, but in Springfield they may be only aligned for five minutes," said former Danville state Rep. Bill Black, chairman of the pro-expansion Illinois Revenue and Jobs Alliance.

The legislation calls for five new casinos, including one in Danville and another city-owned casino in Chicago. It also provides for the introduction of slot machines at racetracks, something Quinn has opposed in the past but that is considered mandatory to attract legislators who support agricultural and horse racing interests.

Owners of existing casinos, of course, are opposed to more competition, and the presence of well-heeled interests on both sides of the question has created an epic battle.

Although Black is supportive of the gambling expansion while Quinn has said he is likely to veto the bill, Black is not critical of Quinn.

"I don't think that Governor Quinn is being unreasonable," he said.

Black noted that Quinn has insisted that any Chicago casino be subject to strict regulation not currently provided for in the legislation.

"He's very, very nervous about (the possibility of corruption). Who wouldn't be," Black asked.

Quinn also has said he wants to restrict the ability of gambling interests to make campaign contributions, and Black said "that would be an easy thing for us to give up."

"I don't think we're that far apart," he said.

Expansion of gambling is being sold to revenue-hungry legislators as one answer to Illinois' serious financial problems. Backers have suggested it could produce as much as $1 billion in new revenue. But proponents of expanded gambling in Illinois have repeatedly overestimated its strength as a source of new revenue, and it would be unwise to rely too heavily on their promises.

But the fact is that casino gambling — indeed, all kinds of gambling — is a popular reality in Illinois. That's a disappointment to many who argue that gambling's social cost is unbearably high, but people make their own choices.

If Quinn does ultimately veto the bill, an override is another option.

The legislation passed the House with enough votes for an override, but it fell short of override numbers in the Senate. Still, legislators who voted "no" in the Senate could switch their votes, and Black said he received indications from some that they would be willing to do so.

Reading the legislative tea leaves, however, is a difficult business. Last fall, Quinn stopped gambling expansion cold. This summer, he's still gumming up the works, but backers of expansion have shown a new resolve to get their way — one way or another.

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