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Thursday, March 11, 2010 04:52 pm

Why the latest gambling push has a chance

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The Statehouse is buzzing yet again with talk of a new gaming expansion plan. This time, the players say, they have their acts together. Really.

I’m always pretty skeptical of these big legislative pushes. Expanding gaming is one of the most difficult things to do. A big reason is that there’s so much money involved with gaming that people get too greedy. Eventually, the bill suffocates under its own weight. Too many goodies are added to the Christmas tree.

The only time this ever works is when all the legislative leaders and the governor are pulling together. That’s how gaming was expanded under Gov. George Ryan and that’s how video poker was legalized last year under Gov. Pat Quinn. Everybody at the top, Democrat and Republican, worked together to get it done.

In video poker’s case, it was the Republicans who broached the idea. The Democratic majority was looking around for ways to fund a massive public works proposal, and when the Republicans agreed to keep the fee hikes to a minimum by using video poker, the deal was set.

The latest action started when state Rep. Will Burns (D-Chicago) introduced a bill to put slot machines at horse racing tracks.

The idea would be to use the money for capital projects. The law legalizing video poker in taverns, truck stops and fraternal organizations has come under increasingly heated attack by editorial boards while several local governments are opting out of the law.

The state’s checkbook is empty, so using the state’s account to borrow money is difficult, to say the least. The Illinois Gaming Board is taking its sweet time in preparing rules and regulations for the placement of the slots. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley also indicated recently that he wasn’t thrilled with the idea of legalizing the machines for his city.

Even if video poker works out OK, there’s always a hunger in Springfield for more capital projects. This state’s infrastructure is so out of whack that we could probably spend $100 billion and not get everything working right.

Anyway, the latest gaming push really kicked into gear when House Speaker Michael Madigan suggested that language from a bill he introduced a while back be used instead of Burns’. Madigan’s bill would raise more money than Burns’ bill would, so Madigan’s interest got everyone pretty excited and negotiations began in earnest.

The biggest initial hurdle when dealing with the racetracks is getting the track owners together. They don’t like each other much, and will usually bicker among themselves ad infinitum. Then, negotiators have to convince the people who own and train the horses to climb on board, and that’s never easy, either.

From what I can tell, negotiations have apparently gone far better this time around than in the past and the owners and the horsemen are reportedly getting close to an agreement. The sputtering economy and the fact that Illinois is losing quality horses to other states which pay out higher purses is apparently playing a major role in spurring the negotiators on.

Of course, the state’s riverboat casinos could then want their own piece of the pie. That could wind up making the bill too heavy. Whether anything will ever come of this is anybody’s guess at the moment, as usual.

The Senate Democrats don’t seem too excited yet because they’ve seen Speaker Madigan kill off gaming bills countless times. Madigan did reportedly have a meeting with proponents a few weeks ago in Chicago and the House Republicans are participating in the talks. Since Madigan often cuts out the Republicans, that’s a very positive sign.

One difference this time around could be the bill’s sponsor. Rep. Burns dealt with numerous complicated negotiations back when he was a high-level member of the Senate Democratic staff, including a massive gaming bill. His fresh approach is certainly drawing a lot of Statehouse respect.

Also, Gov. Quinn said in December that the state ought to take a look at slots at tracks. That’s heartening to the proponents.

The new proposal would inject about $300 million almost immediately into the capital projects program. And that’s driving a whole lot of interest.

But then there’s the final hurdle: Public opinion during an election year. Will that much gaming expansion in such a short period of time be rejected by the public, particularly when the rest of the state’s budget is such a freaking disaster?

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.