Online play a wild card in Illinois gambling debate

SPRINGFIELD — The debate over gambling in Illinois is expanding, from the well-worn arguments over new casinos and slots at Arlington Park to now whether every of-age Illinoisan should be allowed to gamble over the Internet.

Internet gambling could bring blackjack and craps to anyone who wants it, taking advantage of smartphone apps and an increasingly connected culture to let people play at any time or place.

The idea has come up as Senate Democrats led by state Sen. Terry Link of Waukegan try once again to put slot machines at Arlington Park, as well as casinos in Chicago, Lake County and elsewhere.

This time, Internet gambling has been added to Link's legislation. Under the plan, Illinois casino or track owners could operate gambling websites in addition to their traditional operations, and the new money they'd produce for the state largely would go toward paying down Illinois's massive pension debt.

Only Illinoisans over 21 years old could play on Illinois sites, and an online gambling license would cost a casino owner $20 million up front.

The games offered mostly would be well-known casino games like poker or roulette. Supporters argue that people already play online, so the state should regulate the games and get tax revenue to help its financial crisis.

“This is already going on,” said Illinois Lottery Superintendent Michael Jones, who isn't taking a position on the issue. “It's not like we're inventing anything.”

Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, proposed legalizing online gambling last year, but it didn't go far. And this isn't necessarily new for Illinois.

Illinois was the first state to start selling lottery tickets online, and a program to let bettors pick horses on the web expired Jan. 1.

But the pitfalls and complications that go with regulating the Internet has some past supporters of expanding gambling nervous. That could mean trouble for the overall plan.

“That may end up being the biggest part of the bill,” said state Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican.

“And it's the part we're spending the least amount of time on.”

Concerns about underage players and people getting addicted have raised red flags for opponents and even for lawmakers like Murphy who have voted for gambling expansion in the past to support Arlington Park's bid for slot machines.

“I would absolutely like to see another state experience this live before we jump in,” Murphy said.

The gambling capital of the United States is on its way there.

Nevada lawmakers approved Internet gambling in 2011, but it's yet to go live as regulators strive to figure out how to make it work.

“It's been a very hard, technical process,” said Nevada Gaming Control Board Chairman A.G. Burnett.

He said about 10 operators should go online later this year. The state took years to work on the regulations and sent staff overseas to see how Europe handles it.

“The regulations alone don't cut it,” Burnett said. “You've got to have your staff up to speed.”

Nevada's movement is partly why Cullerton wants to get moving, his spokesman, Ron Holmes, said. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid has pressed for federal legislation outlawing all Internet gambling except poker.

That would disrupt attempts by states like Illinois trying to get their own Internet gambling programs. Reid's legislation stalled last year, but he called it “the most important issue facing Nevada since Yucca Mountain,” the proposed nuclear waste site there.

In Illinois, regulations essentially would be handed to the Illinois Lottery, which pioneered selling tickets online last year.

Jones said casinos or a track with online gambling licenses would be allowed some leeway in creating a profitable system.

But regulators would monitor the big-picture issues like keeping young people from playing.

Jones says technology on the Internet means that, unlike at a casino, regulators and companies would be able to track how much people are playing.

“The biggest consideration from the standpoint of a regulator is to prevent underage play and excessive behavior,” Jones said.

So far, Gov. Pat Quinn hasn't sent a strong signal of his thoughts on Internet gambling.

When pressed last week, Quinn focused on the stronger ethics provisions Link's legislation includes as well as a concern that money go to pay for schools or the state's pension debt.

Quinn's apparent openness to the idea could be good news for supporters as the governor has been strongly critical of gambling plans he thought were too big.

“That's one of the new parts,” Quinn said of Internet gambling.

“We don't know all about that, and I think that's why we have research and review.”

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