SPRINGFIELD -- Almost three years since Illinois' indoor smoking ban took effect, the push is on again to allow gamblers to light up in casinos.
Illinois casinos' revenue crashed hard in 2008, when the ban pushed smokers out of nearly every indoor public area in the state. Even though the economy was making gamblers nervous across the country, the industry argues the smoking ban played a big part in dinging casino revenues here.
This week, the Illinois House could consider giving a smoking-ban exemption to the Elgin casino, the under-construction facility in Des Plaines and other gambling boats across the state. The idea has been around for a while, and lawmakers have balked so far. But the plan got initial support from a House committee earlier this month.
"I think it's progressing at an unexpected clip," said Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association. The group represents the Grand Victoria in Elgin, among others.
Elgin Mayor Ed Schock said even though he supports the smoking ban in bars and restaurants, he'd like to see the casino's gambling floor exempted.
"I have no doubt it would help," Schock said.
The Elgin boat, like most in the state, saw a big revenue drop in the first year of the smoking ban.
In 2007, the casino brought in about $437 million, according to Illinois Gaming Board reports. In 2008, it took in about $338 million, a drop of more than 22 percent. In 2010, the casino is just a little off its 2009 revenue pace of $292 million so far.
The American Lung Association is fighting the exemption hard. The organization argues that the sour economy is more to blame for casinos' woes than the absence of cigarettes and that casino workers shouldn't have to go back to dealing with secondhand smoke.
Kathy Drea, director of the American Lung Association's Illinois arm, also says the legislation is poorly written and might allow for smoking at Arlington Park if the track eventually installs slot machines.
"I don't care how well this is worded, we'd still oppose it," Drea said.
There's no guarantee the House lawmakers will vote on the exemption plan this week. Even if they approve it, the legislation would move to the Senate, a chamber led by Senate President John Cullerton, a leader of the original smoking-ban push.
Still, Drea's group bought newspaper ads in casino areas to try to combat the exemption.
Swoik said that while his group supports it, lawmakers might just be too busy to make a casino smoking exemption a priority. The House and Senate are each scheduled to meet for three days this week.
"They've got so much going on in the next three days," Swoik said.
Among the things they have going on is a proposal to add five casinos around the state four in northern Illinois and allow for 1,200 slot machines to be installed at Arlington Park.
And gay-rights activists hope lawmakers this week will approve civil unions for same-sex couples. Leaders in both the House and Senate have expressed support, as has Gov. Pat Quinn.
Still, the issue could be deemed too controversial to get enough support for a vote this week as religious groups such as the Catholic Conference of Illinois pushes back.
On the state budget, officials could mull over a plan to borrow up to $4.1 million to pay for state retirement plans. And they could take up legislation that would strip some pension benefits from local police officers and firefighters.
On the other hand, the General Assembly has scheduled time in January to work on controversial issues before new members are sworn in that month. They may put off much of their work until after the new year.