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State legislators propose Chicago casino, slots at Arlington Park
By John Patterson and Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 12/10/2007 12:16 PM | Updated: 12/10/2007 2:24 PM

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SPRINGFIELD - A gambling plan to pay for road, bridge and school construction was unveiled by Democratic leaders Monday and could be put to a vote as soon as next week.

The sweeping proposal would put a casino in Chicago and auction both a new casino license and the last remaining license in the state's possession in hopes the state's tax take would leverage billions of dollars worth of spending.

Additionally, Arlington Park would get access to 1,100 positions for slot machines and video poker, part of a statewide plan to put 3,600 gambling machines at the tracks to create "racinos." Existing riverboats would also gain access to more slot machines and other gambling devices. The racinos and boats would pay $50,000 per new gambling spot.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, issued a memo backing the plan and set the stage for a possible Dec. 17 vote. He said gambling had become the last resort for funding construction, education and bailing out the Chicago region's bus and train agencies before a financial "doomsday" early next year.

"In light of this reality, and particularly out of a strong desire to see the unseemly drama over mass transit in northeastern Illinois that has played out over the last six months brought to a conclusion, I am willing to embrace compromise and offer a sincere, serious proposal that will receive my full support and backing," Madigan said in the letter to members of the General Assembly.

Madigan sought to portray the plan unveiled Monday as the product of talks with the state's other political leaders. But one Republican familiar with ongoing talks cautioned that this should not yet be described as a "deal."

Other top Democrats also appeared reluctant to embrace Madigan's version of gambling expansion.

"You can put one thing on paper but it's what the words actually say," cautioned Senate President Emil Jones Jr., a Chicago Democrat and ardent gambling proponent who's often differed with Madigan.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Rod Blagojevich said only that this plan had not been reviewed.

House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego, however, said the differences appear to be narrowing. "The great thing about negotiations is you get closer and closer each time," said Cross.

Meanwhile, the two Democratic state lawmakers who unveiled the gambling plan said they think a deal is close.

"We think it's 99 percent there," said state Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat. Lang and Chicago Democrat Bob Molaro are pushing the gambling plan with Madigan's backing.

But this plan is likely to generate controversy on several fronts. There's already been heated criticism of his plan to dramatically alter how women and minorities gain access to an ownership share of the new casinos.

Madigan contends the plan should be open to any minority or woman who can come up with a $5,000 share and there'd be a lottery to pick the actual investors. But others prefer the previous system, which involved women and minorities with significant financial backing being part of the ownership applications for the casino license.

Also at issue is how much Chicago should pay for a gambling license. Early estimates said the license could be worth $800 million, while city officials said any fee would be too much. This plan calls for a $200 million payment to the state.