Lawmakers send Lake casino, track slots legislation to Quinn

SPRINGFIELD — The suburbs' future as a major gambling hub in the state and region now rests in the hands of Gov. Pat Quinn, who will determine the fate of legislation to allow 1,200 slot machines at Arlington Park and a new casino in Lake County.

Similar massive gambling expansion proposals have been around for years, debated by lawmakers at the Capitol over and over again.

But not since lawmakers first authorized Illinois casinos in 1989 has a governor had so much influence in Illinois' gambling future.

Arlington Park spokesman Thom Serafin praised the Senate, saying slot machines will bolster the track's financial future. Now, he said, Quinn still needs to be convinced.

“We're looking forward to better athletes, better horses, better jockeys,” Serafin said. “There's still a good deal of work to do.”

Quinn has consistently criticized gambling packages as big as the one that now sits on his desk. The proposal would bring the number of Illinois casinos to 15, plus allow between 900 and 1,200 slot machines at each of seven race tracks.

That's in addition to the Illinois Lottery system, as well as thousands of video gambling machines that could be installed at neighborhood bars and clubs across the suburbs and state to pay for a construction program approved two years ago.

Yet, Quinn spokeswoman Annie Thompson Tuesday didn't dismiss the current proposal out of hand.

“The governor is open to proposals to raise revenue, create jobs and protect funding for education,” Thompson said.

The Illinois Senate Tuesday approved the gambling expansion plan by a 30-27 vote, the minimum needed for passage.

Carried by Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat who has pushed for a Lake County casino for more than a decade, the plan also would allow land-based casinos in Chicago, the South suburbs, Rockford and downstate Danville. And it would allow slot machines at O'Hare and Midway International Airports to be located in areas beyond ticketing and security, as well as give seven state racetracks slot machines.

Each of those machines would come with a steep upfront fee, and Link pitched the plan as a way to get an influx of cash for a state struggling to pay its bills. He said that when Illinois has more options, fewer people will have to travel to Indiana or Wisconsin to gamble.

“The one group I'm going to put out of business with this bill is the bus drivers,” Link said.

Slot machines at Arlington Park are seen as way to try to save a horse racing industry in crisis. Local officials have wondered aloud about the historic track's future in Arlington Heights as fewer people bet on horses every year.

“My concern here is for the future of horse racing,” said Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican.

Opponents, though, point out that the casino industry has seen steep declines in recent years, too. The increased competition of more slot machines and casinos could cause profit problems for casinos like the Grand Victoria in Elgin and Hollywood Casino in Aurora, as well as the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, which isn't even set to open until mid July.

“It happens,” Link argued. “There's competition in this world.”

The legislation allows those casinos to expand, but they might decline to do so because of revenue declines.

“I can't believe we're back here talking about this,” said Sen. Linda Holmes, an Aurora Democrat.

And, critics say, more gambling options might mean more gambling addicts.

“It will also destroy individual lives and devastate families,” said Anita Bedell, director of Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction problems.

It's unclear how soon new casinos could get up and running if Quinn approves, especially because the Illinois Gaming Board is currently taxed trying to license thousands of people who want to put video gambling machines in bars.

But Link's plan would allow the new casinos to set up temporary facilities for gamblers while their permanent buildings are under construction.

Nevertheless, if Quinn signs the plan, the wait for the new casinos won't be nearly as long as the years Link has been waiting to get the plan approved.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's interest this time in a casino for the city likely played a role in winning support among Chicago lawmakers.

And the proposal splits up the tax revenue the new gambling options would create among a number of interests — including agriculture research programs, county fairs and 4H — that could have been used to lure votes from downstate lawmakers.

Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont said she remained skeptical, though, because sometimes state money doesn't always go exactly where it was intended.

“I just hope they weren't hoodwinked,” she said.

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  Work continues on the Des Plaines casino, which is expected to open this summer. Competition for the gambling dollar is expected to become all the more fierce if a gambling expansion plan is approved in Springfield. Bob Chwedyk/