Illinois Senate approves gambling expansion

Andy Brownfie

A massive expansion of gambling in Illinois squeaked through the Illinois Senate on Tuesday and now heads to Gov. Pat Quinn, who has expressed reservations about a "top-heavy" bill that would install slot machines at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

Senate Bill 744 passed on a vote of 30-27 with two members voting "present." Thirty votes were needed for passage.

The legislation - which calls for five new casinos, harness racing for up to nine months of the year at the fairgrounds and slot machines at all racetracks in the state - would raise $1.6 billion, which would be used to pay down old bills.

Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, walked the Senate floor, talking to Democrats during the debate. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan, said supporters were unsure about the votes of "one or two" Democrats and the vote was almost closed before the 30th vote for the bill was cast.

"Jacobs!" Link shouted at Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, who had voted "no." Jacobs, whose father, Denny, was the Senate sponsor of the law that legalized riverboat gambling in Illinois, did not flip. Sen. Antonio Munoz, D-Chicago, provided the final "yes" vote on the dramatic roll call.

Deals cut

Twenty-five Senate Democrats voted for the bill, as did five Republicans.

The House approved the measure Monday.

In order to pass the expanded gambling plan, which has failed in one chamber or the other every time it has previously been introduced, the sponsors used the time-honored tradition of cutting side deals in order to win votes. These included setting money aside for downstate agricultural interests, a foreclosure prevention fund and tax incentives for existing casinos.

Some senators took umbrage at such tactics.

"I think the only provision we're missing is probably a provision for dog owners," said Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora.

"Please, bring that one up, because that may garner another vote or two," she said, to a chorus of barks and one meow from other senators.

Too optimistic?

Other opponents questioned how much money the new casinos and slot machines will bring in. Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, whose district includes the existing Casino Queen riverboat in East St. Louis, said all the expansion would simply increase competition for the same gambling dollars.

Because the bill lowers taxes on casinos, an increase in casinos with no new gamblers would mean less money for the state, Clayborne said.

Though the governor has said he opposes "top-heavy" expansion of gambling, he did not say he would veto the proposal. A Quinn spokeswoman said he is open to any means to increase revenue for education and create jobs and that he will review the bill when it lands on his desk.

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

What the bill does

*Senate Bill 744 permits harness racing for up to nine months of the year at the Illinois State Fair. Slot machine gambling would be allowed while horse racing is going on.

*The measure would create five new casinos: in Chicago, Danville, Rockford, Park City (near Waukegan) and ,in the south suburbs to be determined by the Illinois Gaming Board.

*Existing casinos could expand from 1,200 gaming positions to 2,000 by 2013. Current riverboats would also have the option to become land-based casinos.

*Slot machines would be authorized behind security checkpoints in Chicago's two airports.

*Some revenue raised by the casinos would go to a depressed communities grant program, a compulsive gaming program and a foreclosure prevention fund.

*Downstate agricultural interests would also receive a cut of casino revenue - $25 million annually for 4H Clubs, Future Farmers of America, county fairs and soil and water conservation districts.