For Quinn, casino expansion like a house of cards

2011-07-10T00:00:00Z For Quinn, casino expansion like a house of cardsThe Associated Press The Associated Press
July 10, 2011 12:00 am  • 

CHICAGO | Like a house of cards, the massive expansion proposed for Illinois' gambling industry was built piece by piece, slot machine by slot machine and vote by vote before the measure won its unprecedented approval in the legislature this spring.

That is the summer's quandary for Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.

The governor initially trash talked the sheer size of the expansion. But he faces some severe fallout if he tries to trim it down, including the unhappiness of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a fellow Democrat, who's counting on a Chicago casino to help alleviate the city's financial crunch.

Pulling out any of the bill's many pieces, including any of five new casinos, risks the loss of backing from legislators whose support was carefully cultivated, one by one, possibly dooming the proposal if Quinn sends it back to Springfield shrunken or otherwise amended. That could cost the state $1.6 billion in licensing fees and other payments that proponents say the legislation would generate to help pay down the state's backlog of bills.

If Quinn eliminates a proposed casino in Danville, the bill risks losing eastern Illinois lawmakers.

If he drops one of the proposed casinos in Rockford or Lake County, or one proposed for somewhere in Chicago's south suburbs, legislators from those areas could balk.

If he erases proposed slot machines for Chicago's O'Hare International and Midway airports, the measure could lose support among other Chicago lawmakers.

"If he starts tinkering right now, the whole thing could collapse," said state Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, who represents Danville. When asked if he would support the measure without a casino for that struggling, down-on-its-luck city, Frerichs declared "most certainly not."

And it's not just about quarters. If Quinn vetoes the provision allowing slot machines at the seven race tracks in the state, including at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, he risks losing lawmakers with tracks in their districts.

That includes Republican Rep. Richard Morthland, of Cordova, who is no fan of slot machines but says he is willing to put up with them to reinstate racing at the Quad City Downs in East Moline. Under the bill, the track can't get slot machines unless it reopens for racing.

"I want to bring back the horses," Morthland said.

The bill's precariousness was underscored when Senate President John Cullerton decided not to turn it over to Quinn yet for his decision. Fearing a veto, Cullerton put a legislative "hold" on the bill until lawmakers see whether they can negotiate some kind of compromise that won't doom it.

In the meantime, Quinn is doing what he did before he decided to sign legislation abolishing the death penalty in Illinois: listening and talking to a wide variety of interest groups. That means hearing from people for and against, including the bill's sponsors in a meeting last month that lasted more than two hours.

"I'm going to continue to analyze everything," he said of the 400-page legislation. "With respect to the bill, it's not on my desk. When it is, then we'll act quickly."

He said he expects negotiations to take a good part of the summer.

The expansion approval was a rare victory for gaming supporters in Springfield. For years, such proposals were frustrated when too much was piled into the bill. The difference this year was the state's dismal financial situation, Emanuel's vigorous support and quickly dealing with the matter at the end of a session, which helped mute public dissent.

The gambling bill passed with few votes to spare. It got 65 yes votes in the House, five more than needed, but just the required 30 in the Senate.

If Quinn ultimately uses his amended veto on the bill to make changes, lawmakers would need a supermajority — 71 in the House and 36 in the Senate — to override him. If an override fails, the bill would die unless sponsors ask for a vote to merely accept the governor's changes. That would require a simple majority, 60 in the House and 30 in the Senate.

Either option would be tough if some legislators pull their support because their piece of the puzzle is missing.

Democratic Sen. Terry Link, a chief sponsor of the bill, said it won't be pretty if Emanuel doesn't get his casino. "He would be upset if this bill is not signed," said Link, whose own Lake County constituents would benefit from the proposed casino in Park City.

Besides giving Chicago its first casino, the bill also would expand the number of gaming positions at the state's existing nine casinos and at a 10th scheduled to open later this month in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines.

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