Quinn says gambling could help pay for pensions, schools

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn, in his budget proposal to lawmakers Wednesday, suggested for the first time that money from new Illinois casinos could help pay for schools and the state's nearly $100 billion in pension debt.

“Any enhancement that we enact to gaming revenues this year should be dedicated to education, which could include teachers' pensions,” Quinn said.

Just hours before Quinn's speech, state Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat, filed legislation to expand online gambling, allow new casinos — including one in Lake County — and add up to 1,200 slot machines at Arlington Park.

Quinn's suggestion came as he presented budget cuts that he blames on lawmakers' failure to tackle the state's skyrocketing pension costs.

Money generated by new gambling would be a sliver of what's needed to pay the state's pension payments. And plans to expand gambling will be controversial and divisive.

Still, Quinn's bringing it up in his speech Wednesday increases the likelihood that slot machines could be part of any final budget deal as lawmakers try to find a way to avoid schools cuts the governor proposed.

“We should consider this an unacceptable option and work to fully restore education funding,” Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, said of Quinn's proposed cuts to education.

It didn't take long for Quinn's suggestion to take hold among lawmakers.

“What he requested is exactly what we're doing,” said Link, whose proposal would earmark new gambling revenue for education and pensions.

Within hours after Quinn's speech, a Senate committee had given preliminary approval to the expanded gambling plan, though not without objections.

“We haven't even seen this until an hour or so ago,” said Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno, a Lemont Republican.

State Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican who has backed gambling expansion in the past to try to bring slot machines at Arlington Park, said the potential expansion of Internet gambling was troubling enough that he couldn't back the legislation despite its help for the track.

“I'm not prepared to do that,” he said.

And other critics worry that new casinos and slot machines would take away from already-ailing Illinois casinos, including the Grand Victoria in Elgin.

Link's plan is sweeping. It would allow existing casinos in Illinois to set up online games like video poker.

Those games would be overseen by the Illinois Lottery, which was the first in the country to start selling tickets online.

In addition, four of the five new casinos would be within a stone's throw of the Chicago area, in Lake County, Chicago, the south suburbs and Rockford.

Where in Lake County a casino would be located has changed in previous legislation, but this draft gives the option of Waukegan, Park City or North Chicago.

In addition, a Chicago casino could split its 4,000 gambling positions among one location in the city, plus O'Hare and Midway airports.

Gambling at O'Hare would be virtually next door to Des Plaines' 1½-year-old Rivers Casino, raising the potential for it to take a hit in revenue. The proximity of Arlington Park raises concerns for the new casino, too.

To address Quinn's concerns about ethics, an inspector general would be created to oversee industry regulators and campaign contributions from gambling interests would be banned.

All new money generated by casinos and slot machines at racetracks would be earmarked for schools. And new money from the Internet would be tabbed for state pension costs.

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat and pension expert, cast some doubt that the gambling plan would do much to take a bite out of the state's retirement debt.

First, she said, gambling expansion is an issue that's faced gridlock for more than a decade — far longer than even the recent debate over pensions.

Plus, the jockeying for gambling money is typically intense. Even at Wednesday's Senate hearing, Chicago lawmakers raised questions about whether money would go to Chicago State University. And a downstate lawmaker asked if cash was available for 4-H clubs, for example.

“There are already a lot of hands in that pot,” Nekritz said.

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