Illinois Senate Passes ‘Huge’ Gambling Expansion Bill

Published December 12, 2010

The Illinois Senate has passed a bill that would greatly expand legalized gambling in the state.

“Is it a huge [gaming] expansion? Yes, I’m not going to deny it. But we’ve got a huge [budget] deficit in the state of Illinois,” said Democrat Sen. Terry Link of Vernon Hills, chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee, shortly after senators passed the bill in the chamber’s year-end veto session.

The bill passed by a vote of 31-20, with two members voting present. Now it moves to the House, where it is sponsored by Rep. Lou Lang (D- Skokie).

Casinos, Riverboats, Horse Tracks
Link’s bill (SB 737) would grant a new casino license in his north suburban Chicago district and to the cities of Chicago, Rockford, Danville, and Ford Heights. The nine holders of riverboat casino licenses in Illinois would also have the option of expanding with land-based operations.

To sweeten the pot, state horse racing tracks would be allowed to add slot machines.

Lang said he is generally favorable toward the bill but he intends to “propose some changes” to it.

Link’s bill allocates $200 million to help pay a portion of the state’s $6 billion backlog of unpaid bills. Lang said he favors this and is studying the bill line by line to see what changes might be proposed. The bill covers more than 300 pages.

Recently reelected Gov. Pat Quinn (D) signed a bill last summer allowing video poker machines in the state’s taverns and restaurants.

The Illinois Gaming Board is on record as saying the expansion of gambling to include video poker machines might not go into full effect until July 2011 because of technical difficulties with the application. The law allows local governments to opt out of video poker, and some already have. The proceeds from video poker are designated for government construction projects in the state.

Federal Expansion in the Works
In a move that would open online gambling in Illinois and every state, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) is circulating a bill that would sweep away regulations intended to prohibit online poker playing nationwide.

Eli Lehrer, a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute and director of its Center for Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate, sees this as a good start.
“There was a legitimate debate about the wisdom of gambling, but it has ended,” Lehrer said.  “Legalizing online poker is a start, but the entire regime intended to stop online gambling is silly and destructive.

“This isn’t about gambling. It’s about freedom. The efforts to restrict online gambling have already imposed enormous costs on a financial transaction system that simply can’t afford them,” he added.

John W. Skorburg ([email protected]) is associate editor of Budget & Tax News and a lecturer in economics at UIC.