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Illinois House OKs casino for Chicago, slots at O’Hare, Midway

The Illinois House has approved bill thwould allow casino Chicago. | Stephanie Dowell~Post-Tribune

The Illinois House has approved a bill that would allow a casino in Chicago. | Stephanie Dowell~Post-Tribune

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Updated: September 3, 2011 12:33AM

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois House approved a massive gambling expansion Monday that would bring new casinos to Chicago and the suburbs and slot machines to racetracks and possibly the city’s two airports.

The measure passed 65-50 and now moves to the Senate, which has embraced a series of casino expansion packages in the past, including last December.

Two House members voted “present.”

“It’ll be dramatic help for the economic engine of Illinois, which is the city of Chicago,” said Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), the bill’s chief House sponsor.

Lang said his legislation, which also would allow casinos in north suburban Park City, the south suburbs and Downstate Rockford and Danville, would generate $1.5 billion upfront in licensing fees. That money could be used to pay down the state’s backlog of unpaid bills, he said.

After that, he said, the expansion would generate another $500 million in gambling revenues, which Lang described as a “conservative” estimate that could drift as high as $1 billion annually.

If the Senate follows suit and approves the gambling expansion, the next big question is what Gov. Pat Quinn will do.

While Quinn favors a city casino, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel has identified as a priority, the governor also has used the term, “top heavy,” when asked about Lang’s legislation and has vowed not to allow Illinois to be transformed into the “Las Vegas of the Midwest.”

Emanuel’s office did not have an immediate response to Monday’s House vote, but sources closely involved in the head-counting said personal calls from the mayor helped flip five city legislators believed to be leaning against the bill.

Another city legislator, Rep. Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago), was brought on board with a pledge to include language in the bill that would guarantee funds for foreclosure relief — an issue that arguably has little to do with gambling expansion.

There also were at least four southern Illinois members normally opposed to gambling who backed Lang in exchange for support of constructing a clean-coal power plant in Downstate Taylorville, gambling industry sources said.

Under Lang’s legislation, 4,000 gambling positions would be authorized in Chicago, housed entirely within a single casino or split between there and the city’s two airports.

In signs of Quinn’s discomfort with Lang’s proposal, the governor this month dismissed the possibility of Danville getting a casino, urging the mayor there “not to hold his breath” for one. The governor also said he did not favor allowing slot machines at the Illinois State Fairgrounds as Lang’s bill permits.

Lang predicted a gubernatorial veto isn’t a slam-dunk certainty.

“We pass laws, and he gets to review them. But if a bill was on his desk that paid off $1.5 billion in old bills that he had no other way to pay them off, I’d think he’d want to take a strong look at that bill,” Lang said.

Quinn spokeswoman Annie Thompson repeated the governor’s support for a Chicago casino and stated he is “open to proposals that will raise revenue, create jobs and protect funding for education.”

She refused to say whether he’d sign or veto Lang’s legislation, saying only that the governor’s office was monitoring the situation.

Should Quinn veto any portion of it, the number of votes in the House were not enough to override him.

While the vote did not have a single voice of opposition, Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo) later said he voted against the package because it would drastically change the landscape of Illinois.

“I think Nevada is going to be jealous of how much Illinois is expanding,” Franks said.

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