Gambling expansion pits casinos against horse tracks, cities against cities

News-DemocratMarch 4, 2014 

DEREK HOLTMANN/BND

Participants at a hearing Monday in the south Chicago suburbs on whether to expand gambling in Illinois raised similar issues to the ones raised during a previous hearing in East St. Louis.

Namely:

* Would an expansion harm existing casinos?

* Will horse-racing tracks be able to survive without it?

But at the hearing in Tinley Park, there were a couple of other questions that overshadowed those: Which south-Chicago suburb should get a license for a brand new casino? And how would the revenue from that casino be shared?

State Rep. Robert Rita, D-Blue Island, who is shepherding a gambling-expansion bill in the state legislature, said the hearing Monday showed that mayors from the south-Chicago suburbs are "not on the same page" on how revenue should be shared from a new casino there. A coalition of south-Chicago communities wants the bill to include a plan for how those communities could share revenue from a south-Chicago casino, he said.

The proposed gambling expansion, which last year cleared the state Senate but wasn't called for a vote in the House, would have allowed a new casino in Chicago as well as new casinos in Rockford, Danville, Lake County and one in the south-Chicago suburbs. The plan also would allow slot machines at Chicago's airports and up to 900 slot machines at each of the state's horse-racing tracks, including Fairmount Park in Collinsville.

"Some of the (South Chicago) cities that would like to move forward to obtain this, they all have different ideas," Rita said. "They're sort of all over the board on their ideas for the revenue-sharing part."

The hearing in Tinley Park was the second conducted by Rita to gather public input on a gambling expansion. The first was held in January in East St. Louis.

At the East St. Louis hearing, the major points of contention were the impacts on Fairmount Park, the Casino Queen and the city of East St. Louis, which gets about 40 percent of its city funding from Casino Queen taxes. Fairmount Park supporters say they need slot machines in order to compete with tracks in other states. Casino Queen and East St. Louis supporters say they'd be jeopardized by having to compete against slots at the horse track.

Rita said there was some brief discussion at the Tinley Park hearing on how the bill would impact the existing casino in Joliet and the Balmoral Park horse-racing track in Crete, but the major issues were the revenue-sharing and the location of a new casino.

"The issue with Fairmount Park and Casino Queen and East St. Louis was far greater than I expected. It was a different set of issues in the south suburbs," Rita said. "Different regions have different issues. Issues related to those regions are unique and specific."

Randall Blakey, a member of the board of trustees at Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, which opposes a gambling expansion, attended the hearing in Tinley Park. He said the majority of speakers favored an expansion.

"That was pretty evident," Blakey said. "It's just a matter of where the casino is going to be and how the revenue-sharing is going to take place."

Blakey said the possibility of having no expansion at all "is just clearly off the table."

Still, Blakey said it's not clear whether the pro-gambling forces -- the competing types of gambling venues and the competing municipalities -- can fashion an agreement, and then get it approved by the House, the Senate and the governor.

"I don't know if there's a bill that can be crafted to make enough people happy," Blakey said. "It's obvious there would have to be compromise across the board."

Rita remains hopeful that a compromise can be reached.

"Well, that's what we're trying to figure out here," Rita said. "We're still working on it, and that was the idea behind having these meetings -- to hear what the locals are saying who aren't always in Springfield, and to have a more transparent way of doing this, and trying to come to some common ground."

At the East St. Louis hearing, the supporters of the Casino Queen, East St. Louis and Fairmount Park said they'd like to reach some type of compromise. But Rita said he hasn't heard yet of any resolution from those factions.

"They were talking about different proposals, but I haven't at this point seen any of that," Rita said. "They agreed to talk and sit down and try to figure it out. I haven't heard any outcome of that, as of yet."

Rita said his next hearing probably will be held in Chicago.

Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at bbrueggemann@bnd.com or 239-2511.

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