No dice: Amended gambling bill omits gaming machines at Fairmount

News-DemocratMarch 13, 2014 

A horse and rider take off from the starting gate during a training session at Fairmount Park.

DERIK HOLTMANN/BND

Fairmount Park in Collinsville would not get gaming machines under the latest version of a gambling-expansion bill pending in the Illinois legislature.

State Rep. Bob Rita, the lawmaker who is trying to craft a bill that can win approval from the state House, Senate and governor, filed an amendment Thursday to the legislation, cutting out Fairmount Park and making a handful of other changes.

Rita, D-Blue Island, said concern about the impact on the neighboring Casino Queen prompted him to exclude Fairmount Park from getting gaming machines. All other horse tracks in the state would be allowed to get gaming machines.

Rita has been holding public hearings to gather input on how a gambling-expansion plan for Illinois should proceed.

At a hearing in East St. Louis earlier this year, many supporters of the Casino Queen and the city of East St. Louis said they were concerned about the impact on the casino if gaming machines were allowed at Fairmount. Casino Queen supporters said the casino can't handle much more competition. And city officials said East St. Louis counts on the casino for 40 percent of its operating revenue.

But Fairmount Park supporters argued that the horse track needs revenue from gaming machines in order to offer better purses for the races. Track supporters said their existence is threatened by horse tracks in neighboring states that have gaming machines. The other states' tracks can draw more entries because they offer larger purses with revenue from gaming machines, according to Fairmount supporters.

Rita said he had hoped for some type of agreement to materialize among the Casino Queen, East St. Louis and Fairmount Park.

"If there was an agreement and it worked for everybody, and it didn't have a detrimental effect on the region, I'd consider putting them in the bill," Rita said. "But I need them to come up with something that works for everybody in that region: the Casino Queen, the city and Fairmount."

Rita said he remains hopeful that such an agreement can be reached.

"They haven't come together. I've heard that they have, but I haven't seen anything," he said.

A Fairmount Park spokesman did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Rita is offering the General Assembly two expansion choices, including one plan that would create a mega-casino in Chicago but nothing else in the state. Neither proposal has gaming machines at Fairmount.

Rita, who announced his plans Thursday, said his ideas were scaled back from two previous high-profile attempts.

Rita said one amendment to his bill would create a Chicago casino with up to 10,000 spots for gamblers, but strips the other four new casinos proposed in past measures. The second plan would create a 4,000-spot Chicago casino and smaller, 1,200-position ones in Rockford, Danville, Lake County and a suburb south of Chicago.

"We've got to take a different approach and of all the concerns that I've heard, filing these two amendments will be the way to free up this logjam that we're in," Rita said, "and take a different approach, scale this proposal down while concentrating on creating jobs and putting money into schools."

Rita said he had no estimate of what the state's portion of expanded gambling would be, though it'd be split in either approach between education -- on a per-student basis -- and capital construction projects. Supporters of past bills put the annual state revenue at $400 million to $1 billion.

Five-casino expansion has won legislative approval twice since 2011, but Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has opposed them, fearing that they didn't go far enough to safeguard against the involvement of organized crime or to limit campaign contributions from gambling operations.

A spokeswoman for Quinn did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment.

Rita's initiative would put the Chicago gambling house under state ownership and regulation, replacing the previous plan that would have made the casino the city's responsibility. It would also limit campaign contributions from anyone with more than a 1 percent interest in a business seeking a casino license, instead of 7.5 percent.

Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat and a leading legislator on the issue, said he hadn't seen the details of Rita's proposal and couldn't comment on it, but said he was encouraged by actions in the House and "their willingness to get this moving again."

In the Chicago-only idea, there would be no slot machines allowed at horse racing tracks as previous plans suggested. Horse tracks have clamored for a piece of the action since riverboat casinos started cutting into the statewide gambling take 20 years ago.

But the idea for five casinos would allow 600 slot machines at each horse track in Cook County and 450 per track outside the county, except for Fairmount Park.

Neither proposal would allow the state's 10 existing casinos to expand. Previous measures called for 1,600 spots for the new casinos and permitting existing riverboats to expand from 1,200 to 1,600.

"It's going to produce a lot of money for education, a lot of money to put people back to work in capital (construction) and address concerns," Rita said. "It's two different approaches that I'd like to see which direction they'd like to go, the will of the General Assembly."

Also gone is an initial proposal to add slot machines to Chicago's two airports, but a spokesman said Rita is open to discussing the issue.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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