Illinois Senate floor next up for gambling expansion

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Senate floor will host the next showdown between those who want to expand gambling for billions of dollars in new revenue and those who claim the proposal won't deliver what it promises.

Under the plan approved 8-4 Tuesday by the Executive Committee, the state would add five casinos — including one in Chicago — and more than triple the number of places people can place bets.

It would add slots at existing casinos and allow horse racing tracks to have them for the first time in what would be the largest growth in legalized wagering since its introduction in Illinois two decades ago.

The idea is crucial to Illinois, which has up to $8 billion in unpaid bills, and to the Senate, which rejected a $6 billion plan Sunday to borrow money to cover the obligation, proponents say.

The measure would bring in $1.6 billion in upfront licensing fees and other payments from new casino owners, said Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan. He said all would the money would go toward "paying off old debts."

Continuing new revenue would be $500 million or more annually, including tens of millions of dollars more for schools.

But opponents scoffed at the amount bandied about and said it would not draw gamblers back from Indiana and Iowa, where they've fled to casinos that allow them to smoke or offer other amenities.

Gov. Pat Quinn said earlier this month he's open to discussing a Chicago casino but that five new casinos are "way too many."

"We're not going to do that. I will never support that," Quinn said.

Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, whose district includes a boat at Alton, said the measure simply creates competition for existing gambling houses, not for other states.

Tom Swoik of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association said existing casinos would lose up to 30 percent of their revenue. He said the revenue estimate is unrealistic because it assumes that current casinos, with 1,200 gambling slots apiece, will all add the 400 spots the legislation allows.

Jay Keller, a lobbyist for Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns boats in Aurora and Joliet, said owners won't want to add gambling positions "in the current economic climate."

Two Democrats, including Clayborne, opposed the legislation, joining two Republicans. Three GOP members voted "present."