The long-fought battle over adding slot machines at Arlington Park could return to the forefront soon if the Illinois Senate revisits the issue in a postelection veto session.
Local lawmakers say Senate Bill 3146, which would allow up to 1,200 slot machines at each of Illinois' racetracks, would generate revenue to help keep the struggling tracks afloat and also provide badly needed funding for the state's $31 billion capital program.
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Racetrack slot machines were one of the big issues left undone in the spring session, and the bill's House sponsor, Democratic state Rep. William Burns of Chicago, said Monday that the bill could gain momentum once the election is over. He said there's an urgent need to fund the state's construction projects, and such projects tend to draw bipartisan support, making the bill more appealing.
"The racetrack industry in Illinois is dying a slow and painful death. This would give them the tools that would allow them to compete with the riverboats and stand on their own two feet, Burns said. "We have enough votes in the House, but we don't know what would happen in the Senate. The question is, are there enough votes in the Senate?
The bill faces considerable opposition from anti-gambling groups and legislators in riverboat casino towns, who say the new slots would hurt their business. That's why Burns says he's "optimistic, but not Pollyanna-ish about the bill's future.
"We still have got a little ways to go, he said. "We're going to have to find a way to fund the capital program.
State Rep. Sidney Mathias, a Republican from Arlington Heights who is seeking re-election next month, agrees that the bill might have a better chance once the election is over and there aren't political ramifications of a "yes vote, but says it's impossible to read the tea leaves about whether the bill will ever see the light of day.
"A lot of it will depend on how the bill is structured. There are always amendments put on, said Mathias, who said he supports the track but opposes the expansion of gambling. "We do need to do something (to generate funds), but I feel very strongly about local control. We should not force any community to have gambling that they don't want.
Arlington Heights village officials have not given an absolute "no to slots at Arlington Park, because Village President Arlene Mulder said they're concerned about the racetrack's future and want to keep an open mind.
Before he resigned last week, Arlington Park President Roy Arnold sketched out a vision that included a sprawling entertainment complex surrounding the horse track with shopping, live entertainment, slot machines and a revitalized hotel.
Slot machines at Arlington Park have always been a big question mark, Mulder said.
"If there is a bill coming out, we'll be very interested in it. There's no 'yes' or 'no' at this point, she said Monday. "It comes up every few years and then nothing happens, because it can't get any consensus down in Springfield.
Senate Bill 3146 would circumvent the village's home rule authority, which means the state would control Arlington Park's slot machine operations. That's what concerns people like Nancy Duel, of Arlington Heights, from the group Residents for Home Rule.
"That many slot machines is a casino, she said. "I don't think the people in the village are clear on the plans, but it would be a full-blown casino.
Duel and other gambling expansion opponents, who met Monday with the Daily Herald editorial board, say slot machines would keep the track open up to 22 hours a day, seven days a week, and would increase gambling addiction, traffic congestion and crime. She has appealed to Mathias to introduce legislation that would give local communities control over gambling within their borders.
John Alan Boryk, of Arlington Heights, who is with the group Stop Predatory Gambling, called the racetrack's desire for slot machines "a desperate measure that might not work.
Boryk is helping to organize a community forum on the slot machines issue at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 25, at the Arlington Heights Historical Museum. Topics of discussion will include the impact on downtown Arlington Heights and the broader business community; the impact of circumventing Arlington Heights' home rule authority; and the impact of addictions on families in the community.
Opponents of the plan understand the state's desperate need for more funds, but say the seemingly easy solution of adding slot machines is a mistake and will have costly consequences.
Allison Anderson, an Arlington Heights resident who opposes slots at the track, says most residents aren't aware of what's going on or the potential implications to their community.
"I'd be concerned about a casino going in there, she said. "If they have to go out of business, that's not my problem. It's not our job to make sure they're profitable at our expense.