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Editorial: An ‘excessive’ but needed casino bill

Updated: July 8, 2011 2:20PM

Gov. Pat Quinn said Wednesday that he will give a bill authorizing a Chicago casino “a microscopic review.”

By all means. The bill dramatically expands gambling in Illinois, more than tripling the current number of gambling positions in the state.

The governor, like us, is unhappy about lumping in so many other gambling sites with Chicago’s, calling the bill “excessive” and “top-heavy.”

He’s absolutely right about that.

But here’s what Quinn will see when he finally gets his microscope in focus: A bill that will draw in much-needed revenue for Chicago and the state. The state is already slashing social services, education funding and threatening deep cuts to state employee pensions. Adding new revenue is one of the only ways available to soften that blow slightly, to ward off even more draconian cuts in years to come.

We’ve long supported efforts to reduce state spending, but Illinois is quickly reaching a point where the government’s ability to provide core services is in jeopardy.

Quinn can easily sign this bill without fear of being criticized for going back on his word, even though he has spoken out against a significant increases in gambling. By saying yes to new revenue, Quinn would be cleaving to a larger principle he has long espoused: that he would do whatever it took to protect the things that make Illinois a humane and civilized state, including providing adequate services for the disabled, the elderly and children.

Critics say the only way out of Chicago’s and Illinois’ fiscal mess is to wield the budget ax. If only it were that easy. Neither the city nor the state can fix the bottom line without a combination of dramatic cuts and new revenue, including the recent state income tax increase.

Quinn could attempt to change the bill with an “amendatory veto.” He could slice off the “top-heavy” parts and send it back for approval by the Legislature. In addition to a Chicago casino, the bill would lead to casinos in the south suburbs, north suburban Park City and Downstate and permit slot machines at racetracks and, possibly, the city’s two airports.

But here’s where it gets tricky. The bill represents a fragile compromise, passing the Senate with no votes to spare. Any way Quinn pares down the bill will alienate somebody. And there goes his majority.

Over in the House, Speaker Michael Madigan dislikes amendatory vetoes, viewing them as an incursion on the constitutional power of the Legislature. In the past, he has kept amendatory vetoes bottled up in committee. Without a new floor vote, the bill dies.

We can’t afford to let that happen. The casinos are projected to generate $1.5 billion upfront in licensing fees and $500 million a year in tax revenues. The Chicago casino alone would generate about $300 million a year and create about 2,000 jobs.

We need to protect, as much as is possible, the pensions of public workers. We need to fund education. We need to stop scaling back or closing down human service programs. Gambling revenue won’t do it alone. Far from it. But it will help put the city and state on more sound financial footing.

In considering the casino bill, Quinn said it will be his job to make sure “the people of Illinois come first.”

You don’t need a microscope to see that signing this bill into law is the way to do just that.

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