For Lou Lang, Governor Pat Quinn’s counterproposal on gaming legislation is pretty much a non starter, but that does not necessarily mean the veteran representative will stop his two decade long effort to expand gambling in Illinois.
On Monday, Quinn released a modified expanded gambling bill that dramatically cut back on the legislation that barely squeaked through both Springfield chambers this spring, with Lang guiding it through the House. With Quinn labeling the bill “top heavy” state Sen. John Cullerton never formally sent that package to Quinn to try and work out a compromise and prevent Quinn from vetoing the bill.
After a summer of verbal jousting involving Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a major proponent of a Chicago casino, the state’s chief executive has now stated what he would accept in terms of expanded gaming as Illinois’ legislature prepares to meet in a veto session starting next week. The fate of the billion dollar bill could be decided then, but that remains unclear.
Among the major components of the bill passed last spring are more gambling locations throughout the state and allowing slot machines to be permitted at racetracks and airports. Quinn is calling for five casinos – including one in Chicago – but the deal breaker may be the fact that Quinn doesn't want slot machines at the airports or race tracks.
“I believe the current bill is top-heavy with too many new gambling locations. I will only support a smaller, more balanced and modest expansion. As long as I’m Governor, Illinois will not become the Las Vegas of the Midwest,” Quinn said in a statement.
A Difference in Opinion
There are also differences in terms of how the new gambling locations would be regulated, but Lang is not optimistic that common ground can be found since the two sides have diametrically opposed viewpoints regarding slot machines. Lang said any bill that does not allow racetrack owners to have slots is not going to get the votes from downstate legislators needed to pass another bill.
“There is certainly room to compromise on all the regulatory issues he talked about yesterday, but I cannot and will not compromise on the issue of the racetracks,” Lang said. “The most ridiculous part of it all was to cut the racetracks. Not only could it cost us 40,000 jobs, but the governor ignores the point there is already gambling at the tracks.”
Lang went on to add why he believes the race track component is so vital.
“There are 40,000 jobs in the horse racing industry in Illinois and every day we lose some of those jobs. We lose them to states that have slot machines and race tracks and most of the jobs are at the core, agriculture jobs. They grow feed and breed and train horses so legislators from central and southern Illinois have an interest in not losing those jobs and because of that they will not vote for a bill that does not provide jobs.”
This latest twist in the drama occurred after Lang and other representatives met with Quinn on several occasions to discuss the bill; Lang was disappointed in the governor’s proposal.
“What concerns me most is the governor provided this roadmap without any negotiation or contact with legislators who have been working on this for a long period of time,” Lang said. “We did meet but there was no negotiation. This is not a product of negotiation; this is a product of the governor’s own thinking in an area where admittedly has little knowledge.”
The question now becomes if there will be any type of compromise made behind the scenes that Quinn, Emanuel, Cullerton can agree to and draw the support of Lang and his counterpart, State Sen. Terry Link, the bill’s chief sponsor in the Senate.
The Human Toll
Where gaming proponents do not appear to be finding a lot of support in the legislature are from lawmakers who are close to Lang - at least in terms of geography.
State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg has been an adamant opponent of gambling and voted against the bill in May and said he will not support any expansion.
“Throughout my career I’ve opposed any expansion of gambling because of the human toll that it takes, devastating the lives of many individuals and their families,” Schoenberg said. “Somehow we never get around to calculating the cost of what compulsive does to our communities and our society and when we do the math on whether or not we should expand gambling in Illinois.”
State Rep. Dan Biss said he hasn't seen all the details of Quinn’s proposal but remains opposed to expanded gambling on philosophical grounds.
“I’ve never seen a gaming expansion proposal that I would support and I’m very skeptical of expanded gaming,” he said. “Any move to scale back the bill and expand regulatory authority is an improvement, but that doesn’t by any means guarantee my support.”
So after 20 years of working on gambling expansion legislation, Lang concedes that if this proposal goes down, he and others who believe in expanded in the state will have decisions to make about the future, but is not ready to throw in the proverbial towel. He maintains it is a matter of economic development for the state as he believes his bill would bring in $1 billion into cash strapped Illinois.
“This is not about gambling, it is about jobs and revenue," Lang said. "If some company wanted to come to Illinois and invest half a billion dollars, I’d be all for that, but they aren’t. So we have to look wherever we can. This bill takes an already legal business and lets it grow.”