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posted: 10/19/2011 5:00 AM

The struggle to get gambling 'right'

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Daily Herald Editorial Board

Gov. Pat Quinn has been right on many points regarding the gambling expansion plan passed by the legislature this year.

He's right that the plan, more than tripling the number of slot machines in Illinois, is far too big.

He's right that if we're going to expand gambling in the state, "it can't be passed to appease every gambling lobbyist in Springfield."

He's right that the system needs more oversight than the present legislation provides.

But his answer to those shortcomings is so wrong it's hard to imagine he's not intentionally trying to scuttle gambling expansion altogether.

If that's his true intention, we're almost tempted to tip our hats to him. We worry about Illinois' increasing flirtation with gambling as a mechanism for addressing budget problems brought on by its leaders' poor decision making.

Still, gambling is here and it's here to stay, so the issue now is how to carefully manage its growth so as to maximize its benefits and simultaneously control its substantial detriments. On that challenging point of balance, the proposal Quinn offered this week falls far short.

In the first place, by addressing primarily just O'Hare and slots at the race tracks, the governor has flicked away two of the smallest elements of the massive plan approved by the legislature. Slots at O'Hare do pose a variety of troubling concerns, but they certainly do not equate to a casino. And with their seasonal operation and the restriction solely to slot machines, race tracks, too, have limited potential for scaling back the expansion.

Yet, Gov. Quinn's plan would leave in place five full-fledged casinos. This is not an evolutionary increase; it's a 50 percent expansion in one barely controlled explosion. This while ignoring the damage to an established and functioning enterprise.

We have never been excited about embracing the prospect of slots at race tracks, including Arlington Park. But, over the years, Arlington and other tracks have made a convincing case that the advent of just the existing levels of gambling are crippling their industry, endangering thousands of jobs in diverse corners of the Illinois economy. Further gambling expansion without giving the tracks an opportunity to compete evenly seems sure to hasten racing's demise.

Quinn's suggestion that the legislature could or should simply argue every year over how much money to funnel into racing from other gambling interests is a start, but the tracks cannot thrive to their potential without more control and more predictability than that.

It may well be that Gov. Quinn's position on gambling expansion effectively kills the issue for 2011, and if so, that is not all bad. It enables lawmakers to go back to the drawing board -- yes, again -- and, in the governor's phrase, "do it right." So long as they recognize the solution must be different from the governor's plan.