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updated: 12/2/2010 7:48 PM

Link clings to suburban gambling dream

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  • Terry Link

      Terry Link

  • Terry Link and caption about gambling. Terry Link and caption about gambling. Terry Link and caption about gambling. Terry Link and caption about gambling. Terry Link and caption about gambling. Terry Link and caption about gambling.

      Terry Link and caption about gambling. Terry Link and caption about gambling. Terry Link and caption about gambling. Terry Link and caption about gambling. Terry Link and caption about gambling. Terry Link and caption about gambling.
    Associated Press

  • Slot machines line the walls of a casino at a racetrack in New Mexico. A bill that just passed the Illinois Senate would allow slots at tracks in this state, including 1,200 at Arlington Park.UPI

      Slot machines line the walls of a casino at a racetrack in New Mexico. A bill that just passed the Illinois Senate would allow slots at tracks in this state, including 1,200 at Arlington Park.UPI

  • slotmachine_4ne041608tj photo0694123 Jarusan  DuPage /// WMS Slot machine show room, in Chicago.

      slotmachine_4ne041608tj photo0694123 Jarusan DuPage /// WMS Slot machine show room, in Chicago.

 
 

SPRINGFIELD -- State Sen. Terry Link says he likes to play slot machines occasionally.

And he'd just as soon do it close to home. The Waukegan Democrat has been pushing for a casino in Lake County since he first was elected more than a decade ago. Now, he's among those leading the nearly yearly charge to bring more gambling to Illinois.

His latest plan would have a big impact in his home county and all the suburbs.

Under his legislation, which was approved by the Senate this week, Arlington Park could have up to 1,200 slot machines. Five new casinos would be built including one in Park City, just beyond the border of Link's hometown. Others would be in Chicago, Rockford, the south suburbs and downstate, and other Illinois horse tracks would get slot machines, too.

Lake County would get its casino, but Link says he has a bigger reason to weather the criticism launched at his massive gambling expansion plan. It's similar to the motivation of many people who sit down at a slot machine:

"We're trying to make money," Link said from the Senate floor Thursday. "We're trying to make the state more money."

The state is financially busted worse than a blackjack player holding three face cards. And with lawmakers gridlocked over tax increases and spending cuts, gambling might net the state some of the cash it needs perhaps $1 billion, by Link's estimate.

But even as Link pushes for more casinos and slot machines, the casino industry is one of his harshest critics. The industry doesn't support him when his legislation is debated.

And in the more than $146,000 Link raised for his campaign account in the first six months of this year, there's just a single $1,000 donation from the casino company Harrah's.

Illinois casinos have faced deeper revenue losses than neighboring states in recent years and fear further competition from inside the state.

Supporters of the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin and the facility under construction in Des Plaines say more gambling options in northern Illinois will take away from their already thinning customer base.

Link says he wants to stop Lake County gamblers from taking their money to casinos in Wisconsin.

"I've fought for one up there for many years because I've seen the flow of money from that area going into Wisconsin constantly," Link said. Other Chicago-area gamblers head for Indiana, he says.

He argues that unlike an income tax hike that hits every Illinoisan, more gambling only hits the pockets of gamblers, including out-of-staters who play.

"It's not a tax increase," he said. It's something that you do by choice."

The politics of gambling in Illinois is complicated. Casino and horse racing interests compete for attention, and lawmakers from various regions of the state look out for their own interests.

In recent weeks, religious organizations that oppose gambling in all forms have had the rare experience of being on the same side of the debate of Illinois casino owners, who want to halt expansion as well.

"It is a balancing act that requires precision on the part of Sen. Link to put together such a large package of competing interests," said state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican.

Dillard said he doesn't support the expansion. But he said he voted "yes" on Link's plan to support the horse racing industry and keep the legislation alive for further negotiation.

Link was even questioned by the chairman of the Illinois Gaming Board in November. Chairman Aaron Jaffe said regulating large changes in the industry would be very challenging. Link shot back, saying the Gaming Board members don't know enough about the industry.

His legislation would clear the board by requiring members to have gambling industry experience.

Link's expansion legislation was approved by a very narrow margin in the Senate this week. It now moves to the Illinois House, where state Rep. Lou Lang says he'll review the legislation closely and perhaps make changes. Changes could slow, or even halt, complex expansion plans.

Like Link in the Senate, Lang is the House's point man on gambling. He said after years of dealing with an issue, lawmakers find niches.

"I don't think there's any magic to it," Lang said. "It's just a natural sort of thing."

So as Lang takes the legislation over in the House, hoping for a January vote, Link will have to mostly sit back and watch to see if it survives.

The plan's chief drawback in the minds of many lawmakers is its sheer size. That much added gambling is a lot for many lawmakers to digest.

But Link argues that the plan has to be huge so it'll get the state enough money to make a noticeable dent in the state's at least $13 billion deficit.

"I realize if we do this, this will probably be the last time we ever do it," Link said. "It's so big. We'll do it. We'll get it done. We'll get it done right."

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