SPRINGFIELD — Supporters of expanding gambling in Illinois say the added revenue from more casinos could take some of the sting out of the painful budget cuts being proposed by Gov. Pat Quinn.
A compromise being hammered out behind closed doors could bring casinos to Chicago, Rockford, Danville, southern Cook County and Lake County, and a one-time infusion of more than $1 billion in licensing fees that could help pay down the state’s massive pile of unpaid bills.
“Everybody is interested in getting it done,” said Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat who help craft a gambling expansion plan last year that would have allowed slot machines at the state’s seven horse racing tracks, including Quad-City Downs in East Moline.
The Quad-City Downs has not hosted live horse races since 1995, but it operates an off-track betting facility at the site.
East Moline Mayor John Thodos would welcome slot machines in his city, but “I don’t ever see it happening.”
His city collects some property taxes from the land, but having slots “would help our city tremendously because we don’t get the (gambling) revenue stream,” he said. “All we’ve got left is the sore reminder of how it it used to be.”
The main reason Thodos doesn’t expect the slot machine plan to go forward is that Quinn opposes it.
On Wednesday, however, the governor laid out a budget proposal that would close 59 state facilities, including prisons and centers for developmentally disabled residents. He also demanded that lawmakers work together to address skyrocketing Medicaid and employee pension costs.
Quinn representative Brooke Anderson cautioned that a gambling expansion plan is not a cure-all for the state’s crushing budget woes.
“We don’t think you can gamble your way out of this budget mess,” Anderson said.
But, the governor continues to send a team of aides to the gambling negotiations in hopes of finding an agreement that can be supported by all parties.
Link said he believes a package could be voted on by members of the House and Senate later this spring. It could be an easy vote for election-minded lawmakers, who believe it could stave off some of the closures Quinn is threatening.
Link would not say whether negotiators had found a way to replace projected revenue that would be lost if horse tracks don’t get slots.
“We’re working on all different types of concepts,” Link said.
The horse racing industry still is pushing for slot machines at their venues.
“Many Illinois lawmakers and the public agree that generating new revenue opportunities — at no cost to taxpayers — by saying ‘yes’ to slots at the racetracks will create new Illinois jobs and ensure the economic future of our children and our state,” noted a statement issued by the Illinois Harness Horsemen Association and four of the state’s five tracks.
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They say slots would provide a boost to their business, helping to retain 28,000 jobs, create an additional 5,000 jobs and keep Illinois racing competitive with states that allow slot machines at the tracks.
In addition to grappling with the issue of slots at tracks, negotiators must tailor the proposal to deal with Quinn’s opposition to allowing gambling at O’Hare and Midway airports and the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield.
State Rep. Rich Morthland, R-Cordova, backed the plan last year because it will create jobs in his region, he said.
The governor also is pressing for tough ethics rules, including a ban on campaign contributions from gambling licensees.
Whatever plan emerges, Quinn aides are trying to downplay the potential financial gain.
Last fall, the governor released a report raising questions about the revenue estimates, saying the added gambling positions would bring in much less money than what supporters are forecasting.
“Gambling certainly is not going to solve the revenue problem,” Anderson said.
(Assistant City Editor Janet Hill contributed to this report.)