PI Original Steven Ross Johnson Wednesday April 18th, 2012, 12:05pm

Gambling Expansion Bill Likely To Resurface In Springfield This May

More than 20,000 jobs and close to $200 million in additional annual revenue is what Illinois stands to gain if proposals to expand the state’s gaming industry go forward, according to the findings of a new study released this week.

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More than 20,000 jobs and close to $200 million in additional annual revenue is what Illinois stands to gain if proposals to expand the state’s gaming industry go forward, according to the findings of a new study released this week.

Gambling expansion has been a contentious issue among state lawmakers for much of the past decade, as attempts to increase the number of casinos as well as allow slot machines at airports, state fairgrounds and race tracks have been defeated.

The latest measure proposed last year, Illinois Senate Bill 1849, would have allowed for the building of five new casinos, as well as slot machines at the state’s six race tracks, but was blocked in the Illinois House last November.  

Plans include the building of Chicago’s first-ever casino, which has gotten the support of state legislators representing districts in the city, as well as Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who reportedly said a casino would lead to job creation and help keep the city “economically competitive.”  

As much of the current political debate has focused on ways to cut spending to address the state’s multi-billion dollar budget deficit, the analysis, conducted by New Jersey-based gaming research firm, Spectrum Gaming Group, estimated the bill could gross as much as $3 billion in casino revenues by 2016 if enacted – a 75 percent increase over the projected $1.8 billion gaming would generate if no expansion were to occur. According to the analysis, the increase would mean an estimated total of more than $800 million a year in taxes and admission fees for the state, or an increase of about $195 million.

Faced with the current economic climate, Illinois Revenue and Jobs Alliance Chairman Bill Black - whose group commissioned the study - said a measure that could potentially increase state revenues while adding much-needed jobs without increasing taxes for all residents should be a measure all state lawmakers could support.  

“Illinois is at a fiscal crisis,” said Black, a former Danville legislator whose group represents a coalition of pro-gaming groups looking to pass SB 1849. “They’re [lawmakers] looking at draconian cuts in the budget, and sure there are spending cuts that are probably going to have to be made [but] I think it’s time we face the reality.”

In an e-mail response regarding the issue of the bill, Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson stated that the governor “laid out a strong framework last year that provides for a smaller, more moderate expansion", which he believed "allows the state to create jobs and pay the bills without having a casino on every street corner.”

Despite Quinn’s stance, Black remained hopeful that a compromise could be reached, provided both sides were willing to come to the table to negotiate.

“Here’s a plan that creates 20,000 jobs – probably a little more than that – which 11,000 would become permanent,” said Black. “When you’re talking 20,000 jobs and tens of millions in revenue for the state of Illinois and local governments, there should be room to sit down and negotiate.”

But reaching a compromise that would satisfy both gaming expansion supporters and opponents has proven to be elusive thus far, with Quinn repeatedly promising to veto any measure that allowed for slot machines at horse racing tracks. Bill proponents have argued the inclusion of slot machines was crucial to help such facilities generate the kind of revenues necessary to attract the top horses in the sport.

“If you’re going attract the kinds of horses that people see at the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont and high stakes races, you got to have the purses that attract the big horses,” Black said. “If you have a non-stable source of revenue, then you can’t maintain the purses.”

One possible compromise could come in the establishment of a cash fund for race tracks paid with a portion of casino revenues – such as what was done last year when more than $140 million was allocated to such venues. According to Black, however, such a proposal could be a tough sell to the horse racing industry.

“Under Governor Blagojevich, we learned the hard way that any state fund can be swept by the executive branch to be used for something else," Black said. “So I think the race track people, and the horse breeders, and the horse trainers and the jockeys and the farmers would want some kind of guaranteed revenue stream.”

In terms of the projected financial benefits, Illinois Casino Gaming Association Executive Director Tom Swoik, whose organization represents Illinois’ 10 riverboat casinos, said he was not opposed to increased expansion, but felt that its impact had been overestimated by bill supporters.

“We’re not against some kind of reasonable expansion,” Swoik said. “The problem is that this bill is so large – there is a casino very, very near every existing race track, so it just doesn’t make sense to add more casinos closer to where we are.”

Swoik contended adding more gaming facilities in areas near riverboat casinos could further hurt an industry that has seen a 22 percent decline in gross revenues since 2007, according to Illinois Gaming Board data, though last year’s total revenues were up by 7.6 percent compared to 2010.

The group’s analysis was based on calculations of population density in proposed casino site locations, i.e. Danville, Park City, Rockford and Southern Cook County and Chicago as well as the areas surrounding the state’s six race tracks.

According to SB 1849 sponor State Sen. Terry Link (D-Waukegan), the two sides are trying to get “closer and closer” to getting a deal in place, with an expectation of a bill being introduced sometime before the end of May.

“I think that we’re gaining on it [a compromise] because we’ve been meeting on it constantly," Link said. "We’re trying to get closer and closer on this and I think we’ re progressing. Hopefully we will get an agreement, and we will be able to do a bill that everybody is in agreement with.”  

Comments

Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson is twisting the issue to fit the governor's opposition slots at racetracks. There would not be a casino on every corner so stop manipulating the proposal to make it sound like there would be. Illinois needs jos and revenue. This bill would provide both without raising taxes. The Illinois horse owners and breeders need this bill to keep pace with Indiana and Iowa which already have slots at their racetracks.

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