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Local video gambling bans could clear way for slots at Arlington Park
By John Patterson | Daily Herald Staff

Suburban communities' rejection of video gambling at local bars has taken a nearly $1.7 billion bite out of the state's $31 billion construction plan and may have opened the door for putting the machines at Arlington Park.

 

Associated Press file

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Published: 4/30/2010 12:01 AM | Updated: 4/30/2010 9:46 AM

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SPRINGFIELD - Suburban communities' rejection of video gambling at local bars has taken a nearly $1.7 billion bite out of the state's $31 billion construction plan and may have opened the door for putting the machines at Arlington Park.

A recent state economic report pegged at $177 million the potential annual losses from communities voting to ban video gambling, a key funding source for the massive public works program lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn approved last year. That $177 million a year would pay off nearly $1.7 billion in construction financing. The state borrows the money for the construction projects and pays it back over two decades. Video gambling provides a stream of cash to pay off that borrowing.

Enter video gambling at horse tracks.

Supporters say the video casinos at the state's tracks could provide upward of $300 million annually, enough to pay off $3 billion worth of borrowing. Plus, there might be as much as $400 million upfront from the tracks buying the rights to have video gambling machines.

"This is really about jobs," said Barrington Hills Republican state Rep. Mark Beaubien, one of the key negotiators working on the legislation.

As proposed, Arlington Park and other Chicago-area tracks would get up to 1,200 video gambling positions apiece. Downstate tracks would get 900 each.

In addition to the construction plan, the video casinos would finance track improvements and increase race prizes, which in turn are expected to bring better competition to Illinois horse tracks and spur investment in the industry.

Supporters are gearing up for a final push in the waning days of the spring legislative session, hoping to get a vote before the scheduled May 7 adjournment. The tracks and various horse racing interests have struck a deal, but it has yet to be tested by lawmakers and has prompted opposition from the riverboat casino industry, which fears its business will suffer and warns state riverboat casino taxes could too.

So far, local officials have opposed the idea because it gives them no say. The state deal would put the gambling machines at Arlington Park whether the village board wants them or not. Village President Arlene Mulder and other village officials, who've traditionally opposed slot machines at the track, have complained that their local authority should be respected.

The village, however, would get 5 percent of the video casino's take. And the lawmakers pushing the deal said they're pre-empting Arlington Heights and other host communities because the construction program is a statewide program.

Essentially lawmakers don't want to have the success of a massive statewide construction program hinge on the whims of the Arlington Heights board. The state's take from video gambling at bars is in such a state of uncertainty because local communities have taken advantage of the local opt-out provisions.