Senate approves refined gambling expansion bill

SPRINGFIELD – A refined plan to add more casinos and slot machines in Illinois – clarified to quell concerns over who would control a Chicago casino – was approved by the Illinois Senate on Wednesday, a proposal supporters believe is their best chance yet to expand gambling in the state.

The changes in the legislation, which would add five new casinos including in Chicago, followed a heated exchange last month between bill sponsor Democratic state Sen. Terry Link and the head of the Illinois Gaming Board, who questioned why a Chicago casino would have its own city board for oversight, among other things. The legislation creates a Chicago Casino Development Authority, whose members would be appointed by the mayor.

The bill now clarifies that all regulatory oversight of a Chicago casino comes under the Illinois Gaming Board, like the state's other casinos. The day-to-day-operations, including contracts and building management, would fall to the city board.

The legislation also broadens a proposed ban on political contributions from the gambling industry.

"This is a bill that we've come a long ways on agreement to," Link said on the Senate floor. "We put a lot of stringent requirements in this bill" to protect the honesty of the gaming industry.

The plan, approved by senators 32-20 Wednesday, largely replicates two previous gambling expansion bills that lawmakers approved and Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed.

Quinn, a Chicago Democrat, wanted more ethical oversight and has said he would like to see a plan to overhaul the state's massively underfunded pension system before a gambling expansion. But Link and others have said gambling expansion will generate revenue that could help the state's fiscal woes, including nearly $100 billion in unfunded pension debt. The proposal is estimated to bring in roughly $1.2 billion in one-time revenue alone.

Still, lawmakers responded to concerns from Quinn and the gaming board by adding the ban and explicitly stating that the state board would oversee the Chicago casino. Backers previously removed a provision allowing for Internet gambling in Illinois. The Senate-approved legislation adds casinos in Danville, Rockford, Chicago's south suburbs and Lake County. It allows for slot machines at Chicago's airports and racetracks, including 1,200 positions in Cook County and 900 for outside of the county. It also calls for a new inspector general for gaming.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has vowed that all revenue from a Chicago casino would go to city schools. He spelled out his promise again Wednesday with a video featuring footage of students and teachers. The Democrat has had a tumultuous relationship with schools since he took office in 2011. Teachers in Chicago Public Schools went on strike for seven days last year and his proposal to close 54 schools has been fought hard by parents, teachers and community leaders.

"... If Chicago were to build a casino, all revenue would be directed toward modernizing schools in our neighborhoods and communities," he said in a statement. "I encourage all parties in Springfield to take swift action on the gaming bill and, in so doing, create the opportunity for us to rebuild and renew our public education infrastructure in the city."

Opponents of the bill have said the expansion is too aggressive and could oversaturate the market and increase problem gambling.

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The bill is SB1739.

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Online:

Illinois General Assembly: http://www.ilga.gov