Gambling expansion dead again? Fairmount-Casino Queen dispute lingers

News-DemocratMay 29, 2014 

State Rep. Dwight Kay.

DERIK HOLTMANN — dholtmann@bnd.com

— As the Illinois Legislature's spring session heads down to the wire, hopes for the passage of a bill to expand gambling seem to be fading.

If that happens, Fairmount Park in Collinsville would again have to put out to pasture -- at least temporarily -- its plan to add slot machines.

"I don't see it happening," said Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, whose district covers the horse-racing track. "It would be a surprise to me if it did happen, but I've been surprised before."

State Rep. Robert Rita, D-Blue Island, who is spearheading this spring's effort to pass a gambling-expansion bill, remained hopeful Thursday afternoon.

"I'm working on some things right now, and trying to figure out exactly where we're at," Rita said.

But the legislature's last day of the spring session is Saturday, and there remain some unresolved issues with the legislation.

For one, there appears to be no way to write a bill that is acceptable to Fairmount Park and to the Casino Queen and to the city of East St. Louis. The casino and the city, which gets about 40 percent of its revenue from Casino Queen taxes, say slots at Fairmount Park would seriously hurt them.

"That's still unresolved," Rita said. "That's something I'm trying to work through."

There's also disagreement about how the local share of taxes from Fairmount Park's slots should be distributed. One proposal calls for 45 percent to go to East St. Louis, 45 percent to go to Alton and 10 percent to go to Collinsville. Kay favors a distribution of 50 percent to Collinsville, 25 percent to East St. Louis and 25 percent to Alton.

"The sponsors who have been working on this don't have soup yet -- it's not near ready," Kay said. "I don't think they're going to put a defective product out on the House floor."

Fairmount Park argues that it needs revenue from slots to fatten race purses. The track says horse owners are opting to race in other states, where slot revenue prop up the races purses.

Fairmount's president, Brian Zander, said he's hearing there's no chance of a gambling expansion getting approved by Saturday. Zander said he figured gambling might get put on the back burner while legislators were dealing with the larger issues of taxes and a budget.

Still, he said it's "frustrating" that another legislative session is ending without Fairmount getting slots.

In how many legislative sessions has Zander had his hopes raised and then dashed?

"I don't know how to count sessions. How about we just go with 15 years? That's literally how long we've been discussing this," Zander said. "It's pretty amazing that Fairmount's been able to hold on this long."

Zander said he's hopeful the legislature will take up the issue again in the fall or January. He gave credit to Rita for holding hearings on the issue and being able to "get it to this point."

Can Fairmount Park and Casino Queen and the affected communities come to an agreement?

"At this point, I'd say people are kind of dug in," Zander said. "I totally understand where East St. Louis is coming from. I also understand where Rep. Kay is coming from. At the end of the day, hopefully reasonable people can compromise and work things out."

Rita is offering two options in his current bill. One is a plan to add five casinos, including one in Chicago, plus slots at racetracks. There would be 600 slots at each track in Cook County, and 450 slots at tracks outside Cook County, except for Fairmount. Fairmount currently is cut out of the bill, due to the disagreement between the track, the Casino Queen and East St. Louis.

The other option in Rita's bill calls for only a state-owned casino in Chicago.

Existing casinos oppose the gambling-expansion plan, saying they're already facing significant revenue losses from slot machines at bars, restaurants and clubs, which were legalized last year.

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

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