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updated: 11/14/2011 1:00 PM

Failing gambling proposals: An annual rite of Springfield

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  • Illinois Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, speaks with lawmakers during an Illinois House committee hearing on gambling in Springfield earlier this year.

      Illinois Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, speaks with lawmakers during an Illinois House committee hearing on gambling in Springfield earlier this year.

  • Arlington Park chairman Dick Duchossois has been arguing for slot machines at the racetrack for at least 14 years.

      Arlington Park chairman Dick Duchossois has been arguing for slot machines at the racetrack for at least 14 years.

 
 

SPRINGFIELD -- Just say something if you've heard this story before.

State lawmakers -- faced with budget problems, looking for ways to create some jobs, hearing the pleas of the suffering horse racing industry -- have turned toward more slot machines and casinos to try to heal all those wounds at once.

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But they've found it increasingly difficult to construct the right combination of more gambling, tax breaks, and money sharing to get both a diverse body of lawmakers and a reluctant governor to approve.

Just last week, Illinois House lawmakers rejected a slimmed-down gambling plan only months after the same body approved its much larger predecessor.

Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat and the plan's sponsor, expressed disappointment and could have borrowed one of his own quotes from 14 years ago:

"It's a controversial issue. Some of the same people who voted 'yes' last time voted 'no' this time. Some of the people who voted 'no' last time voted 'yes' this time," Lang said -- in 1997.

Nearly as long as Illinois has had casinos, there have been people who have wanted more. Sen. Terry Link's efforts to get a Lake County casino predate his 1997 entrance into the Illinois Senate. And Arlington Park Chairman Richard Duchossois has long sought slot machines at the Arlington Heights racetrack.

Despite this, the effort to expand gambling in Illinois is a perennial debate.

It's a nearly perennial failure for the supporters, who cling to the hope that economic bounty can follow a new casino. And it's a nearly perennial victory for anti-gambling advocates who say addiction and money troubles that can accompany regular gamblers far outweigh local benefits.

Duchossois' pleadings for slot machines -- and inability to land them -- even helped prompt a two-year closure of the Arlington Heights track for the 1998 and 1999 seasons as he pushed to install slots at the track.

At that time, officials talked in stark terms about the dismal future of horse racing as gamblers took their cash to casinos instead of the tracks. Years later, those revenue declines are even more defined.

But the unpredictability of gambling politics hasn't changed. In 1997, the year Arlington Heights officials approved a nonbinding resolution to oppose slots at the track, Duchossois didn't panic, but didn't predict, either.

"A few years ago I might have had a big reaction," Duchossois said then. "But I have no idea what will happen."

Compare that to just last week, when Duchossois walked the halls of the Capitol in Springfield to lobby lawmakers. Outside the Illinois House, he tried to gauge support for the latest gambling expansion effort an hour before yet another vote.

"Right now, we just don't know," he said.

An effort to put a casino in Lake County -- one is called for in the most recent proposals -- has been similarly consistent in the proposals and spotty in the results.

Waukegan's bid for the state's 10th casino came close to becoming reality, but in December 2008, the Illinois Gaming Board picked Des Plaines for the site instead. The Rivers Casino opened in July and has quickly become Illinois' most lucrative by a large margin.

But that 10th license was originally approved years ago, in 1989, when lawmakers first legalized casino gambling in Illinois.

Nearly every major expansion attempt has failed since, with the exception of legislation that would allow video gambling machines to be installed in bars. Many suburbs have already banned those machines.

And despite that expansion effort and sharply declining casino revenues across Illinois, the push for more casinos and slots at race tracks marches on.

The proposals have taken on many forms over the years, but the results are always the same.

Jim Edgar opposed widespread expansion in the 1990s.

In 2002, lawmakers thought about slots at the tracks, along with legalizing the numbers game of Keno via the Illinois Lottery, and allowing existing casinos to have more slot machines in order to solve a $2 billion budget deficit.

"I don't play the lottery. I think it's a stupid thing to do myself. You don't have any chance of winning. But if it raises $100 million, give 'em Keno. Be my guest," then-Senate President James "Pate" Philip of Wood Dale said at the time. "I'm not going to play it."

In 2005, in a politically puzzling move, House lawmakers even voted to ban riverboat gambling, legislation that would have shuttered the suburbs' multiple casinos.

Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, an Aurora Democrat, accused the proposal's sponsor of "political grandstanding to win over a conservative downstate electorate."

Link predicted the idea of shuttering casinos stood "a snowball's chance" in the Senate, and he was right. Casinos remain a part of the river-town landscape in Illinois.

Then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich unsuccessfully pushed a plan for casinos and racetrack slots in 2008 in order to pay for a statewide construction program.

"Given the conditions that exist here in Springfield, I think that the proposed expansion of gaming is a dead issue," House Speaker Michael Madigan said at the time.

Madigan wryly elaborated for reporters, referring to legal problems embroiling Blagojevich: "I think most of you have written about those conditions."

What has made 2011 different so far, though, is that it's the first year lawmakers in both the House and Senate approved a plan in the spring that could be sent to the governor.

Gov. Pat Quinn didn't like it, though, so now lawmakers are back to the drawing board. Quinn seemed at least somewhat willing to deal after the latest gambling rejection in the House last week.

"The governor commends the House on a robust debate on this subject," said Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson. "It's clear that this proposal needs more work, dialogue and analysis. We look forward to working with the General Assembly on this issue in the future."

Lawmakers return to Springfield Nov. 29, an extra day tacked onto the fall session to take care of a big tax incentive deal for Illinois businesses. But proponents say gambling also could come up again that day if lawmakers come to an agreement in the next few weeks.

Despite years of frustrations behind him, Lang makes it no secret that he'll try again.

"Tomorrow," he said. "Or next month, or next year."

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