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updated: 5/24/2012 5:38 AM

Illinois House passes gambling bill with more casinos, slots at racetracks

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  • The Illinois House approved a plan Wednesday to allow slot machines at Arlington Park and new casinos in Lake County, Chicago and the south suburbs.

      The Illinois House approved a plan Wednesday to allow slot machines at Arlington Park and new casinos in Lake County, Chicago and the south suburbs.
    Daily Herald Photo Illustration

  • The Illinois House approved a plan Wednesday to allow slot machines at Arlington Park and new casinos in Lake County, Chicago and the south suburbs.

      The Illinois House approved a plan Wednesday to allow slot machines at Arlington Park and new casinos in Lake County, Chicago and the south suburbs.
    Associated Press

 
 

SPRINGFIELD -- The Illinois House approved a sweeping gambling expansion plan Wednesday, renewing an effort to build new casinos and put slot machines at Arlington Park that has stalled since last year.

The plan would allow for 1,200 slot machines at the Arlington Heights track, as well as new casinos in Lake County, Chicago, the south suburbs, Rockford and downstate Danville.

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The House voted 69-47 to send the proposal to the Illinois Senate, where the plan could be debated in the coming days.

"We take it one step at a time," said Arlington Park General Manager Tony Petrillo.

After the vote, Gov. Pat Quinn blasted the plan, perhaps leaving little doubt that lawmakers would have to eventually override a Quinn veto to get new casinos.

"This new bill falls well short of the ethics standards I proposed in my framework last October," Quinn said in a statement. "Most importantly, it does not include a ban on campaign contributions as lawmakers in other states have done to keep corruption out of the gambling industry."

Earlier this week, Quinn referred to the gambling debate by saying lawmakers shouldn't be distracted by "shiny objects" in their quest to agree on a 2012-13 state budget by their May 31 deadline.

But state Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat and sponsor of the plan, said the vote Wednesday showed gambling is more than just a shiny object.

"I'm hopeful with the vote count total ... that the governor will decide that economic development, job creation and saving (the horse racing industry) is worth doing," Lang said.

The plan the House approved Wednesday includes many of the provisions the governor asked for in a new version, including several ethics provisions.

But Wednesday's proposal also includes slot machines at racetracks including Arlington Park, which Quinn has opposed so far.

"We don't always get everything we want in these negotiations," Lang said.

State Rep. David Harris, an Arlington Heights Republican, said that because Quinn threatened to veto legislation that included slots at Arlington Park before, lawmakers should presume he might veto this plan, too. However, Harris acknowledged the governor could change his mind.

Wednesday's plan is the result of months of talks in a debate over expanding gambling that has raged in Illinois for decades.

The existing casino industry has strongly opposed new casinos and slots at tracks, saying increased competition will hurt profits at existing facilities like the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin.

In fact, since the opening of the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines last summer, the Elgin casino has seen its revenue drop sharply.

"They have been cannibalized by the Rivers Casino," Harris said.

Rep. Keith Farnham, an Elgin Democrat who voted against the plan, said lawmakers should be more concerned with declining revenues at most current casinos than on creating more.

"Our existing casinos are already struggling and we need to do more to help them out," he said

Still, more casinos could provide the state with millions of dollars up front as the state sells gambling licenses to help pay down its large backlog of unpaid bills. Money from new casinos might not reach the state for a couple years, but the state's financial problems will probably linger for a couple years, too.

And at a time when lawmakers are considering having to cut spending on health care for the poor, schools and other programs, more money from gambling might be attractive.

Ed Sullivan, a Mundelein Republican, said it came down to a simple choice for lawmakers.

"Are you going to help fill some of the problems and erase some of the cuts?" he said.

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