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updated: 5/30/2011 10:46 PM

House OKs Arlington slots, Lake County casino

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  • The Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin would see increased competition under a gambling plan approved by the Illinois House Monday.

      The Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin would see increased competition under a gambling plan approved by the Illinois House Monday.
    Daily Herald File Photo/Brian Hill, 2008

 
 

SPRINGFIELD -- A sweeping plan that would make gambling a more prevalent element of the suburban landscape -- from slot machines at Arlington Park to a new casino in Lake County -- cleared a major hurdle Monday.

The Illinois House, long reluctant to approve gambling expansion plans, did just that Monday. The legislation now moves to Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat, who will try Tuesday to drive the plan through the Senate and on to Gov. Quinn before lawmakers' scheduled adjournment at the end of the day.

The plan would allow 1,200 slot machines at Arlington Park and slots at Chicago airports, and create new casinos in Park City, Chicago, Rockford, the South suburbs and downstate Danville.

All the licenses would come with steep fees intended to make the cash-strapped state some much-needed money to pay its overdue bills.

Suburban lawmakers have a lot at stake in the expansion.

Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican, said he had to weigh the societal costs of gambling with concerns from local officials that Arlington Park could close without new revenue from slot machines.

"In my opinion, the horse racing industry is a dying industry," said Harris, who voted "yes."

Casino revenues haven't fared well in the recession either, dropping sharply, starting in 2008. That's why supporters of existing casinos in Elgin and Aurora oppose the plan, saying more competition will only hurt their operations.

And Rep. Rosemary Mulligan, a Des Plaines Republican, said the competitive threat could cause problems for the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, set to open in mid July.

"Of course, they're very concerned about increased competition," Mulligan said.

The city of Des Plaines issued a statement Monday strongly objecting to the plan, saying the "massive expansion of gaming" won't solve the state's revenue problems.

"This new proposal will over saturate and cannibalize the market -- forcing existing casinos and surrounding small businesses to lay off workers and hurt local economies," spokesman Rudy Pamintuan said.

Arlington Heights Village President Arlene Mulder, though, was pleased.

Arlington Heights officials have long fought to keep local control since the idea of putting slots at the track first came up, but Mulder and the village board recently came out in support of the proposal, saying the community can't risk losing the revenue stream should the track close.

"These are different times, and this needs to be about the economy and jobs," Mulder said. "We need to support our businesses and not only is Arlington Park one of our biggest, it's a showcase for the village that brings in tourists and that residual spending."

In the 65-50 vote to approve, suburban members of the House were largely split on the vote, with most who represented areas with existing casinos voting "no."

Still, Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, sold the plan as a budget helper.

"Here is the only bill in the General Assembly that will help pay down that debt," Lang said.

Link said he felt "relief" after the House vote and would have to focus on working on Gov. Pat Quinn if Link can convince his fellow senators to approve Tuesday.

Quinn hasn't been shy about saying he's uncomfortable with a large expansion of gambling.

The governor has said he supports the idea of a Chicago casino in particular. But it would be hard for Chicago casino supporters to get approval without help from suburban and downstate lawmakers.

The way gambling politics works in Springfield, legislation to give one interest what they want -- like Arlington Park -- is unlikely to be approved unless other interests get what they want, too.

In past years, that has led to gambling proposals getting so big that lawmakers would balk, and the plans would fail.

In the House this year, though, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pushed for the plan with Chicago lawmakers and downstate lawmakers were perhaps lured in when casino revenue was promised to agriculture and county fair programs.

• Daily Herald staff writer Kimberly Pohl contributed to this report.

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