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More casinos, slots at Arlington likely off the table
By Dan Carden | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/31/2009 5:48 PM | Updated: 5/31/2009 5:48 PM

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SPRINGFIELD - Don't bet on seeing slot machines at Arlington Park anytime soon.

While the Illinois Senate late Saturday night approved a huge gambling expansion plan - including slots at horse tracks and four new casinos - the House couldn't vote on the proposal before a Sunday deadline, which means there likely won't be a House vote on the plan until January.

Saturday was the first time this specific legislation had been taken up by the Senate. Upon approval it was sent over to the House. But the Illinois Constitution requires that each proposal be considered over three days in both the House and Senate. Sunday was day one for the gambling plan in the House. As a result, it can't be voted on before the midnight deadline.

To get around this, lawmakers often pass so-called "shell bills" that don't contain any details but are available at the last minute in the process should a deal be struck. But Waukegan Democratic state Sen. Terry Link didn't go that route with his plan.

State Rep. Lou Lang, the Skokie Democrat who will shepherd the gambling proposal through the House, said he tried Sunday afternoon to attach it to another measure but there was simply not enough time.

"I made an argument in favor of the bill as recently as an hour ago (1 p.m.). But because it's so late in the day in terms of our deadline it's unlikely anything will happen now," Lang said.

That might not be all bad, Lang said, because there are components he called "problematic."

"There are flaws that are fixable, but there's no time to accomplish this before the deadline," Lang said. "I think this can be win-win. But I don't see this bill as win-win yet."

The proposal calls for four new casinos in Chicago, Park City, Rockford and Danville; upping the number of gambling positions at existing casinos from 1,200 to 2,000; and allowing riverboats to become land-based casinos.

"I think naming specific communities is problematic, although I actually personally support the communities he named in the bill. But in terms of passing the bill out of the House, it would be better to have a more general approach," Lang said.

The proposal would also allow existing Illinois casinos to operate slot machines at horse tracks. Arlington Park opposes the measure because its owners - Kentucky-based Churchill Downs - wouldn't be able to control the slots at their track.

"I think if we're going to help the racetracks, we ought to help the racetracks. We ought to give them their opportunity to get a few bucks out of this to save the 40,000 jobs in the horse-racing industry," Lang said. "The way the slot machines at the racetrack are treated, I would treat them differently."

Passing legislation after May 31 requires three-fifths of lawmakers to approve. Since the gambling proposal passed the Senate 30-28, it's unlikely enough votes could be found in the House to approve the plan before January when only a majority will be necessary.

But even waiting until 2010 might not be enough. House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, said he was not going to act on gambling expansion, having been left with a bad taste in his mouth from various Rod Blagojevich-era gambling schemes intended to balance the state budget. The powerful Madigan has the final word on what comes up for a vote.

"The Speaker of the House has staked out a position opposed to gambling, and while I'm on his leadership team, I support gambling," Lang said. "I don't support everything in Senator Link's bill and I'm sure he and I could work out our differences, but until and unless the Speaker decides we're going to take a look at this probably nothing will happen."