An Illinois House-approved gambling bill could have a huge impact on the Quad-City Downs in East Moline, but it will first need the support of a less-than-committed governor.
A gambling expansion bill passed both chambers of the Illinois Legislature last year, but the Senate declined to forward it to Gov. Pat Quinn for a signature that many doubted it would get.
A new version was approved Wednesday by the House, but it did not get the super majority of votes many say are necessary to win Quinn’s endorsement. The measure is likely to go before the Senate next week.
It opens the door for the return of live harness racing at the Quad-City Downs, along with allowing 350 slot machines at the track.
State Reps. Pat Verschoore,
D-Milan, and Rich Morthland,
R-Cordova, voted in favor of the bill, but Morthland said his vote was cast with some reservation.
“Without the Downs, they wouldn’t have had me,” he said. “It’s questionable whether it’s good public policy. There is a human cost.”
He said he is encouraged by the idea of live harness racing returning to East Moline, because it would create temporary and permanent jobs and likely would lead to renovations to the track and clubhouse.
“It’s not like I’m a co-sponsor, but I’m all in favor of reviving the Downs,” he said. “As a farmer, I also care about the hay market.”
State Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, said he intended to spend Wednesday night studying the bill.
“I see some positives and some negatives,” he said, adding he has not yet decided how he’ll vote. “I can see some great benefits for the City of East Moline. We’ve got to be careful, though, that we don’t hurt (Jumer’s) Casino Rock Island.”
Verschoore said he also was looking out for the Illinois Quad-Cities’ only other gambling operation.
“That was my concern, too — Jumer’s,” he said, adding casino officials “could live with” the limited number of slot machines at the track.
Given the sour state of the Illinois economy, Verschoore said, “I felt it was my duty to vote for it.”
Tony Petrillo, general manager of Arlington Park Racecourse, which oversees the Quad-City Downs, said the legislation could result in 240 live races at the East Moline facility for the first time since live racing was halted in November 1995.
“It means jobs and revenue for the state and for the area around East Moline,” Petrillo said.
However, it will take time and money to get the unused track operating again.
“It will take a significant investment,” Petrillo said.
Paying particularly close attention to the bill are members of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association, including its president, Bettendorf native David McCaffrey.
“The next two steps will be more difficult,” he predicted of the bill’s future. “We think the Senate (vote) will be closer, and then we have the hurdle of the governor.”
He pointed out Wednesday’s House vote, at one time, was at 71 ayes, which was a super majority.
“Make no mistake,” he said. “The governor knows that.”
The near-super majority in the House, along with strong support in the Senate could push Quinn into signing the bill, McCaffrey said.
“All governors hate being overridden,” he said, adding the threat could be there for an override if Quinn vetoes the bill.
In order for that to happen, the bill’s sponsor would have to call for another House vote in the fall session and would have to come up with at least two more ayes.
The bill calls for the proceeds from the slot machines at the Downs to be used to build a purse for the horsemen. The expansion also allows for 240 live races in the first season, which would last about three months, with racing on the weekends.
McCaffrey said he has done the math, and the $2.5 million that would come from the slot machines would result in purses of $10,000.
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“My first purse, in 1991, was $1,200,” he said. “We’d be looking at a tremendous increase, but I wouldn’t expect to see any racing for at least a year.”
Added Verschoore, “We’re not out of the woods, yet.”
(Kurt Erickson contributed to this report.)
The Illinois House, in a 69-47 vote, passed a gambling expansion bill that would create new casinos and slot machines at the state's racetracks, including the Quad-City Downs.
However, the bill passed Wednesday won't allow slots at airports or state fairgrounds.
A gambling bill passed by the Legislature last year, but never sent to Gov. Pat Quinn for his signature, included the creation of five new casinos, including the first one in Chicago. Illinois currently has 10 casinos.
Earlier this week, Quinn said Illinois couldn't afford to have lawmakers distracted from crucial issues by more talk of gambling expansion.
A report released by the governor's office in November said a gambling expansion would bring in about $160 million in new annual revenue, not the $1 billion increase claimed by some.
Times staff and wire reports at 4:17 p.m.
The Illinois House has passed legislation that would expand casino gambling in the state.