Committee blocks state fairgrounds 'racino' bill

Andy Brownfield

A measure that would have allowed horse racing and slot machines at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield was defeated in an Illinois House committee on Wednesday, May 25.

Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang's Senate Bill 744, which would have expanded gambling in Illinois, including creating five new casinos and allowing slot machines at racetracks and Chicago's two airports, fell one vote short of the six it needed to make it out onto the House floor.

The proposal was opposed by the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, the owner of three of the state's riverboat casinos and Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems.

"Nothing has changed since we voted on this concept last in January," said Lang, who had introduced a similar measure during the lame-duck session. "Today we're looking for all the jobs and economic development we can get."

The measure would have allowed casinos in Chicago, Danville, Rockford, Park City in Lake County and a yet-undetermined location in the southern suburbs.

It also would have permitted slot machines at racetracks, including a new track and slot machines at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield.

Slot machine gambling would not be allowed year-round in Springfield, Lang said. It was to be legal only during the three to nine months of the year when horse racing would have taken place.

Had the bill passed, it would have applied to harness racing, said Jeff Squibb, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the fair.

Harness racing, where horses pull two-wheeled carts containing riders, already takes place at the fairgrounds. Thoroughbred racing is impossible at the fairgrounds because there is a concrete base underneath the Grandstand track, which could harm thoroughbred horses, Squibb said.

The cement is there to accommodate auto racing, which also takes place at the fairgrounds, Squibb said.

The casino gaming association opposed the bill because riverboat casino revenues are already down by one-third and more casinos would not necessarily attract more gamblers, association executive director Tom Swoik said.

"That's like saying a third of the houses available are vacant, but let's help the economy by building more houses when there's no people to move into those houses," Swoik said.

Anita Bedell, executive director of Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, said the measure would prey on minorities and the poor, who are statistically more likely to be compulsive gamblers.

"While the number of employees has been decreasing at the casinos in Illinois, the number of addicted gamblers has been increasing," Bedell said.

Lang could amend the bill and take another shot at getting it out of committee. He could not be reached for comment as of Wednesday evening.

Andy Brownfield can be reached at (217) 782-3095.