Ill. senators take on concerns over more gambling

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SPRINGFIELD – Illinois senators seeking to eliminate a major stumbling block to new casinos and slot machines in the state went toe-to-toe Wednesday with regulators who say expanded gambling could open the door to political corruption and organized crime.

Senate President John Cullerton invited representatives of the Illinois Gaming Board and the Chicago Crime Commission to appear before the Senate Executive Committee, saying he wanted to address criticism from both groups.

“You’re criticizing the bill the way it was drafted,” Cullerton said at the start of an at times nasty hearing that often resembled a cross-examination. “So I’m asking you to tell us: How could we improve it?”

Gaming officials said they’re worried the proposal being considered by the Senate wouldn’t give them enough regulatory authority over a Chicago casino – a concern lawmakers said was unfounded. Regulators also said they don’t have enough staff to take on the additional workload and that hiring can take months because of state rules.

Illinois Gaming Board Chairman Aaron Jaffe also ripped the more than 500-page proposal as too expansive.

“It’s a Christmas tree bill. It’s something for everyone,” Jaffe said. “It’s like we have to pad it and pad it and pad it.”

Gov. Pat Quinn has vetoed two gambling bills because he didn’t believe they had enough ethical protections.

In his budget address last month, Quinn said any new gambling expansion must be “done right” and include “tough ethical standards, a campaign contribution ban on casino operators, and no loopholes for mobsters.”

Later that day, the Senate Executive Committee voted to advance a bill sponsored by Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan. But Cullerton said Wednesday he doesn’t want to move the measure to the Senate floor until some of the concerns – which have been widely publicized and could hurt the bill’s chances of getting approved – are addressed.

Proponents say the measure could generate between $400 million and $1 billion for the cash-strapped state.

The proposal would add casinos in Chicago, Rockford, Danville, Chicago’s south suburbs and Lake County. It also allows current and future casino licensees to apply for an Internet gambling license and green-lights slot machines at racetracks, with 1,200 machines to be located in Cook County and an additional 900 outside the county’s boundaries.

The Chicago casino licensee would be allowed to apply for up to 4,000 slot machines that could be operated at Midway and O’Hare international airports.

The proposal prohibits licensees from giving campaign contributions to officeholders and candidates.

The measure calls for the bulk of revenue from brick-and-mortar gambling to go to education funding, which Quinn has proposed cutting by $400 million this year – cuts he says are necessary because the Legislature has yet to approve a fix for the state’s multibillion-dollar pension crisis. That $400 million reduction would bring the total cut to education to more than $1 billion since 2008.

Money from Internet gambling would go to pay down the state’s estimated $9 billion backlog of unpaid bills and to treatment programs for gambling addiction.

The director of the Chicago Crime Commission did not attend the hearing but sent a letter outlining his concerns. They included whether regulation of a Chicago casino would be sufficient to keep out organized crime.

“Without the necessary regulations being in place, there is every likelihood that organized crime and corruption will enter the gaming system and Illinois will suffer another blow to its national reputation,” Arthur Bilek, executive vice president of the Chicago Crime Commission stated.

Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said before the hearing that the Chicago Democrat has his doubts about whether the concerns are legitimate or “hyperbole” intended to derail the measure.

“If there’s something that’s real there, let’s unearth it and fix it and figure out how to move on,” she said.

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