GOP governor candidates look at gambling

The four Republicans running for a chance to take on Gov. Pat Quinn, who has vetoed two plans to add casinos and venues for slot machines in Illinois, all vary in their views toward expanding legal gambling.

The winner in the November election is likely to have to grapple with the issue, which has implications across the suburbs.

Casinos in Elgin and Aurora have seen revenues plummet, especially after the 2011 opening of Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. Even Rivers saw smaller revenue in January than in the same month a year ago.

Those operators — and the towns that derive income from them — aren't eager to see new competing casinos, whether in Chicago or elsewhere in the suburbs. Meanwhile, the prospects of slot machines at Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights has backing from some suburbs and not others.

Past votes and statements by the four Republican contenders for governor vying in the March 18 primary show a range of opinions on gambling expansion.

State Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, appears the most willing to deal on the issue, having voted for the most recent expansion proposal, which included new casinos in Lake County and Chicago as well as slot machines at Arlington.

“I also support slot machines at race tracks since they help the racing industry and Illinois agriculture,” he responded in a Daily Herald survey.

Dillard says he would want local approval of new gambling options and wants the Illinois Gaming Board, not a new regulatory group, to oversee a Chicago casino.

State Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican, says he voted “present” on recent gambling proposals because of a conflict of interest. He has ownership interest in a hotel in Danville that is named as a site for a new casino in recent gambling proposals.

Brady opposes a Chicago casino owned by the city. He says he'd be open to slot machines at the racetracks, but he emphasizes, his “present” vote aside, he's not yet seen a proposal in Springfield he could back.

“With limited entertainment dollars among our citizens, gaming is neither a financially reliable source of revenue nor a proper funding mechanism for the state of Illinois,” Brady said.

Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford voted against the last gambling expansion bill that came before the state Senate when he was there in 2010. It included a Chicago casino and slots at Arlington.

He said that, separately, he'd be open to either one as part of expansion negotiations. But he said the whole package as it's often negotiated is too large.

“In general, I do not support expansion of gaming simply to raise more state revenue,” Rutherford said. “If a gaming expansion bill was to be presented with proper regulation and sufficient oversight, I would be willing to entertain a discussion.”

Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner largely punted on the issue in the Daily Herald survey and did the same in the race's first televised debate last month. A spokesman declined to be more specific, leaving voters without answers to how a Rauner administration would approach the perennial issue.

“I don't gamble. I don't like gambling,” Rauner said. “I believe casinos and gambling is here. We should allow our local governments to decide for themselves.”

The final decision on expansion, though, would face a governor, who would have to weigh the possibility for new money against the industry's recent slide as well as the potential for breeding addicts.

The Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin has lost 55.5 percent of its annual revenue since 2007, and the Hollywood Casino in Aurora has lost 47.9 percent over the same time.

The Rivers Casino took in about the same amount in 2013 as it did the year before, but already, its January 2014 revenue numbers are lower than the previous year's.

Gambling advocates say the decrease can be directly linked to an over saturated marketplace, brought on most recently by the introduction of video gambling machines at bars and restaurants.

As of December, there were 13,374 across the state.

Recent gambling bills call for another new wrinkle, adding 1,200 slot machines at Arlington to buoy the sagging horse racing industry, potentially create jobs at the state's biggest track and draw more visitors to the area.

That casino-sized bank of slot machines could further drag down revenues at the existing suburban casinos and the local taxes that come from them.

Still, the promise of more money in casino taxes for a state drowning in unpaid bills and a life-preserver for the state's horse racing industry keeps the issue alive, year after year.

It's possible lawmakers could dispatch with the issue before the next governor takes office, but history would indicate that's a bad bet. Lawmakers sent Quinn gambling plans in 2011 and 2012, but he vetoed them.

Last year, they didn't even get that far, and previous decades have seen many failed attempts to broaden the state's gambling environment.

Quinn has asked for strict ethics provisions in a gambling plan and stressed he'd want any new money generated to go to schools.

He's been criticized by gambling supporters for not negotiating, though, on an issue that many believe will only succeed when everyone who wants something out of an expansion gets something.

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