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updated: 5/28/2015 6:53 PM

Effort to expand gambling likely to be pushed into summer

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  • Arlington Park would get slot machines under the latest Illinois gambling proposal.

    Arlington Park would get slot machines under the latest Illinois gambling proposal.
    GEORGE LECLAIRE | Staff Photographer

 
By Sara Burnett
Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- An effort to generate much-needed revenue for Chicago and Illinois by opening a city-owned casino and expanding gambling elsewhere could be pushed into summer as lawmakers negotiate a deal that could include "satellite" casinos in central and southern Illinois.

Supporters say they believe conditions are right for a deal this year, with Chicago facing ballooning public-pension payments and Illinois dealing with a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

But it's unlikely it will get done before the legislature adjourns its spring session Sunday. That's due both to the complicated nature of gambling negotiations and a stalemate between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic leaders who control the General Assembly.

While Rauner has been supportive of new gambling, he wants the legislature to agree to pass some of his legislative priorities, such as freezing property taxes, before he signs off on a bill. Democrats have so far shot down Rauner's proposals, setting the stage for an overtime legislative session this summer.

"New revenue cannot be discussed until we address the underlying structural issues that contributed to Illinois' fiscal crisis," Rauner press secretary Catherine Kelly said Thursday.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pushed for a city-owned casino to help with a pension system that is the worst-funded of any major U.S. city, and legislators see it as a way to help the state's budget mess.

Legislation being negotiated in the Illinois Senate would allow Chicago to keep all casino revenue for seven years and add casinos in Chicago's South suburbs, Rockford, Vermilion County and Lake County. It also would allow slot machines at Arlington Park racetrack.

The plan also calls for smaller "satellite" casinos, with between 400 and 600 slot machines that could be located in Decatur and far southern Illinois. Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, by comparison, has more than 1,000 slot machines.

Democratic Sen. Terry Link planned early Thursday to present the bill to a Senate committee but later decided it wasn't ready, said Rikeesha Phelon, spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton. She said discussions are continuing, but there are no hearings scheduled before the spring session ends.

Gambling expansion has historically been difficult to accomplish. Former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn twice vetoed bills citing ethical concerns, and other efforts have stalled in the legislature, often because of concerns that in an attempt to pick up "yes" votes bill sponsors have expanded games too much.

Sticking points in the current proposal include how much revenue Chicago would get to keep from its casino, where in the state budget to direct revenue from new gambling and what changes should be made to how existing casinos are taxed.

Rep. Bob Rita, a Democrat from Blue Island, said lawmakers still are working through all those variables.

"Nothing's set in stone," he said.

Supporters have estimated a gambling expansion could bring in $500 million or more per year for the city and state, though representatives of existing casinos say those numbers are inflated. They note that the introduction of video gambling in recent years has taken money from casinos.

"Illinois already expanded gaming with 20,000 video slots in the neighborhoods and the market is saturated," said Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association. "The Senate plan would be the largest expansion of gaming ever proposed by lawmakers."

If the gambling package doesn't get a vote until this summer, it would require a three-fifths vote to pass. But Sen. Dave Syverson, who's helping negotiate the bill, said he doesn't believe that would be a huge obstacle, particularly if it's part of a larger legislative package. He said lawmakers seem to agree that Illinois is losing revenue to casinos in neighboring states.

"This is no longer about expanding gaming. It's already expanding," said Syverson, a Rockford Republican. "It's about bringing it home as opposed to leaving it in the five states around us."

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