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Lawmakers eye more casinos to fund construction
By John Patterson | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 9/6/2007 12:02 AM | Updated: 9/6/2007 8:50 AM

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SPRINGFIELD -- A plan to add three new casinos to finance billions of dollars of construction across the state is expected to emerge next week, pushed by growing concerns about roads and a looming meltdown of the Chicago region's bus and train systems.

State Senate leaders say they plan to vote, perhaps as soon as Monday, on a plan that would put a mega-casino in Chicago and add two more casinos at sites to be determined later by state gambling regulators.

In addition, existing casinos like the Grand Victoria in Elgin would be given the chance to expand by buying the rights to more slot machines and table games.

But serious doubts loom as to whether there's enough support to see such a plan through to the governor's desk. A similar casinos-for-construction deal was torpedoed last month in the Senate amid allegations of political double crosses.

Although the ruling Senate Democrats say they expect Senate Republicans to support the latest deal, GOP sources said Wednesday they were unaware of details and there'd been no further conversations on the issue since Senate President Emil Jones Jr., a Chicago Democrat, declared the construction deal "dead" and blamed it all on Senate Republican leader Frank Watson of downstate Greenville.

Even if such a deal were to pass the Senate, it faces a dubious future in the Illinois House where both Republicans and Democrats alike have said there's not enough votes to approve such a massive gambling expansion.

"I think three casinos would be very difficult," said David Dring, spokesman for House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego.

But the political lure of the plan is the billions of dollars of spending for local and state projects just as lawmakers are about to hit the campaign trail.

All told, the expansion would bring in $1.5 billion up front and finance upward of $10 billion in state construction borrowing. When combined with federal dollars, the total construction tab could reach $20 billion, easily eclipsing the $12 billion Illinois FIRST program then-Gov. George Ryan spearheaded back in 1999 with higher alcohol taxes and vehicle fees.

Separate from the casinos-for-construction deal, the Senate expects to vote on a regional sales tax designed to bailout the region's transit agencies as massive cuts and fare hikes loom on Sept. 17. Those agencies say they need $240 million to cover operating deficits and millions more to upgrade and expand the system.

The proposal would add a combined 50 cents in tax to every $100 of spending on merchandise in the suburban area.

The Illinois House defeated a similar transit tax plan earlier this week, in large part because most Republicans -- including GOP leader Cross -- said it needed to be considered as part of a statewide construction spending plan.

Enter Senate Democrats with the casino deal.

"We're going to give him that opportunity because we're going to pass it out of the Senate," said Waukegan state Sen. Terry Link, a member of the Senate Democratic leadership team.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich has backed similar casinos deals, abandoning a previous campaign promise to oppose gambling expansion. But he did so in an effort to win funding for his planned health care expansion. Asked if the latest casino deal was intended to finance Blagojevich's health care ideas, Link was blunt: "No."

A Blagojevich spokeswoman didn't return calls seeking comment.

Meanwhile, the governor continues to oppose the sales tax hikes for Metra, Pace and the CTA. Still, supporters of the plan in the Senate remain undeterred.

"We are just moving forward," said state Sen. John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat who will be sponsoring the legislation.