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Illinois governor candidates lukewarm on new gambling

Published: Friday, Jan. 24, 2014 11:49 p.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 11:46 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Bill Ackerman – backerman@shawmedia.com)
Rich Lenski (left) and Chris Adair, both of Downers Grove, use video gaming systems Oct. 7 at DJ's Sports Bar & Grill in Westmont.

CHICAGO – As another push gets underway to add five new casinos in Illinois and slot machines at Chicago’s two international airports, most of the candidates for governor in 2014 are lukewarm about the plan, despite supporters’ claims that it could bring in up to $1 billion per year for the financially struggling state.

All four Republicans responding to a questionnaire from The Associated Press said they either oppose new gambling or support it only on a limited basis and with the backing of local governments. Two GOP candidates – state Sens. Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady – also stressed the need to protect the horse racing industry and the agricultural jobs it supports.

Gov. Pat Quinn, who is seeking re-election, has vetoed two previous gambling bills saying they didn’t include enough ethical protections. The Chicago Democrat also has said he will only sign legislation that provides sufficient oversight of a Chicago casino and directs new revenues to education.

The sponsor of the gambling expansion bill has scheduled a public hearing Tuesday in East St. Louis. State Rep. Bob Rita said it will be first in a series of hearings scheduled as the Illinois General Assembly begins its spring session next week.

The bill currently calls for adding casinos in Rockford, Danville, Chicago’s south suburbs and Lake County in addition to Chicago. It would also allow current and future casino licensees to apply for an online gambling license and add slot machines at the state’s horse-racing tracks and O’Hare and Midway international airports.

It’s unclear if any changes will be made to the legislation. But supporters say it could generate between $400 million and $1 billion annually. The measure would put the bulk of revenue from brick-and-mortar gambling toward school funding.

Brady, Dillard, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford and businessman Bruce Rauner are seeking the GOP nomination in the March primary.

Rutherford, of Chenoa, said that in general, he doesn’t support expansion of gambling “simply to raise more state revenue.”

“If a gaming expansion bill was to be presented with proper regulation and sufficient oversight, I would be willing to entertain a discussion,” he said.

Rutherford also said decisions about how to spend gambling revenue “should be part of a broader discussion of revenues and expenditures as we seek to return to fiscal stability.”

Rauner stated in his questionnaire, and again during a debate in Peoria this week, that local communities should drive the decisions about where to add casinos.

“I don’t gamble. I don’t like gambling,” the political newcomer from Winnetka said during the debate. “I believe casinos and gambling is here. We should allow our local governments to decide for themselves.”

In the AP questionnaire, Rauner said any new gambling revenue should be invested in “the state’s top three priorities: education, infrastructure and lowering the tax burden.”

Dillard, of Hinsdale, said he supports “limited casino expansion” to relieve state finances if it’s approved locally. He said he opposed a 2009 video gambling law, but supports slot machines at race tracks because the increased revenue would also help Illinois’ agriculture industry, which receives “a significant amount” of its revenues from horse racing.

“Revenue derived from gambling should be used first to balance the budget, and if revenue allows, for school funding, agriculture assistance, mental health and other funding priorities,” he said.

Brady took the most hard line position on the issue, saying he has “consistently opposed the expansion of gambling for both societal and budgetary reasons.”

“With limited entertainment dollars among our citizens, gaming is neither a financially reliable source of revenue nor a proper funding mechanism for the state of Illinois,” Brady stated.

However, the Bloomington lawmaker has voted “present” on gambling legislation over the past few years because he has an ownership interest in a hotel in Danville, one of the communities where the current proposal calls for a casino to be located. Campaign spokesman Dan Egler said Friday that Brady has wanted to avoid any possible conflict of interest because he could benefit financially from a Danville site.

Brady also said any gambling legislation “must include a long-term solution to the ongoing challenges that our legal casinos have presented to the viability of our horse racing industry,” which he said supports some 37,000 agribusiness-related jobs statewide.

Tio Hardiman of Hillside, who is challenging Quinn in the Democratic primary, said he supports gambling expansion and that new revenue should go to pensions, reducing the state deficit education.

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Associated Press writer Kerry Lester in Peoria contributed to this report.

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Follow Sara Burnett on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sara_burnett

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