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Local protests against Arlington Park slots machines likely wasted effort
If state OKs Arlington slots, village likely could do little
By Sheila Ahern | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 11/11/2007 12:08 AM

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Ask Arlington Heights Village President Arlene Mulder about whether she supports bringing slot machines to Arlington Park racetrack and you'll get a "not-this-again" sigh.

That's because the short answer is "no" -- not that anyone is really asking her opinion anymore.

Although most Arlington Heights officials oppose the idea of slots at the track, lawmakers familiar with the latest state gambling talks say any deal will assuredly supersede the village's authority.

"We're very supportive of the Arlington Park race course, but we're not in favor of slot machines," Mulder said.

It's been a decade since the Arlington Heights village board passed a nonbinding resolution opposing slots. Since 1997, the topic of adding slots at the track seems to come up whenever the state is short on money -- in other words, almost every year or so.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan unveiled a proposal two weeks ago for a completely new state gambling regulation board, possibly signaling a willingness to deal on adding more than just a Chicago casino.

Among the gambling expansions being contemplated are a Chicago casino with up to 4,000 positions, another casino for the South suburbs and slot machines at racetracks.

Local politics aside, the issue of slots at horse tracks is one that has long generated controversy inside the Capitol and is likely to be even more contentious with state House and Senate elections around the corner.

Emerging from a closed-door meeting on gambling expansion last week that included Gov. Rod Blagojevich and legislative leaders, Senate Republican leader Frank Watson of downstate Greenville said he personally could vote for slots at horse tracks.

"I'm not sure I've got members who can," he added.

And while these same leaders recently said they'd have a deal within seven to 10 days, they've since acknowledged it'll take far longer and offered no definitive deadline for action.

All this talk of slots at the racetrack prompted a rally of about 30 people against the idea two weeks ago in downtown Arlington Heights. And about 10 people wearing orange "No slots" buttons attended a village board meeting on Monday.

Despite the 1997 ordinance, today's village board isn't a united front in the stance against slots. Some, including trustees Tom Hays, Tom Stengren and Joe Farwell, are staunchly opposed. Others, including trustees Helen Jensen, Virginia Kucera and Bert Rosenberg, said it's an option worth at least looking into.

"People are saying gambling is so bad but we have the track," Jensen said at a recent board meeting. "We already have gambling."

Track officials say money from slots would help increase the purses, which is the prize money distributed to the owners of the winning horses. On a typical race day, Arlington's purse total has stayed at about $200,000 since 2007, while that figure has risen at other tracks.

"We're just talking about leveling the playing field," said Thom Serafin, Arlington Park's lobbyist.

Serafin has been following the issue for years and doesn't have a whole lot of confidence in the current proposal.

State officials "have told us something is going to happen for the past 10 years," he said. "I'm looking for hope but based on the history, I think it will be hard to bring all the pieces together for this to happen."

Mulder said the village board will not revisit the 1997 ordinance. She knows it's a decision that will be made on the state level, she said.

Not that Arlington Heights officials are happy about that.

On Monday, Trustee Norm Breyer asked Village Attorney Jack Siegel if the village could file a lawsuit in an attempt to stop the state moving forward on the slot issue.

Don't bother, Siegel said.

"I have to be candid here," Siegel told Breyer. "The courts are very reluctant to set aside the state legislature's determination."