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Gambling compromise might mean Illinois towns must ‘opt in’ to allow video poker

Updated: June 19, 2011 2:20AM



In the two years since video gambling was legalized in Illinois, some 80 different jurisdictions in the state have “opted out” of the law by approving local ordinances banning the gambling devices in their communities — mostly in Chicago’s suburbs.

That leaves more than 1,100 cities, towns, villages and counties where video gambling operators are still welcome to set up shop — if the state Supreme Court ever clears the way by signing off on the constitutionality of the multi-pronged law that was intended to help pay for a state construction program.

Now there’s discussion of flip-flopping the law so that towns that want to allow video poker machines and the like will have to approve local ordinances specifically legalizing them, instead of the other way around.

It may not seem like it, but that’s a big difference. It’s one thing for a community to just go along with the state and another entirely for local officials to raise their hands and affirmatively endorse gambling in their towns. The likely result is that there would be far fewer Illinois communities allowing legalized gambling in their neighborhood bars than is set to happen under the current law.

And that’s probably why it has emerged as an attractive concept to some proponents of a major gambling expansion bill approved last month by the Illinois General Assembly and currently being studied by Gov. Pat Quinn.

It was Quinn who I’m told brought up the idea during a meeting this past Thursday with legislative leaders who were trying to convince him to sign the gambling bill, which would add five more casinos in the state, including one in Chicago, put slot machines at horse racetracks and possibly Chicago airports, as well as allow all the casinos to expand their gambling capacity beyond current limits.

While initially criticizing the gambling legislation as “excessive” and “top-heavy,” Quinn has embarked on a deliberative process to analyze the bill while leaving the door open to possibly signing it. He’s under heavy pressure to do so from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who craves the revenue from a city-owned casino as well as the expected jobs and economic development benefits.

Proponents, therefore, are eager to find ways to make the gambling bill more palatable to Quinn without upsetting the legislative coalition that approved it in the first place.

The idea is that Quinn would be able to say he had taken steps to limit what many see as the most invasive and socially harmful form of legalized gambling — video poker machines in local bars.

One problem is such a change would also mean less state revenue from the poker machines, which would create a hole in the funding mechanism for the construction program.

Changing the video gambling law from “opt out” to “opt in” would have little to no impact in Chicago, which already has ordinances on the books that outlaw gambling with video amusement devices.

If you read this space regularly, then you know I have little use for more legalized gambling, even though I totally understand the argument that folks here are already gambling — and we’re losing their money to Indiana. But for today, let’s just set my opinion to the side so I can concentrate on mapping out for you where this might be headed.

Let me clarify that Quinn didn’t propose the video gambling change as part of what it would take to get his support for the big gambling expansion package. In fact, in his meeting with legislators, he didn’t say what he was for or against in the gambling bill or try to negotiate at all, said Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), the House sponsor. For most of the meeting, Quinn just asked questions about various aspects of the bill, Lang said.

But other sources tell me the way Quinn raised the subject of the “opt in” led them to believe it will have to be part of any eventual agreement.

The new gambling law would more than triple the number of what they call gambling “positions” — that’s video poker machines, slots and card tables — in Illinois from the current 12,000 (when the Des Plaines casino opens next month) to 38,300. But that doesn’t count the potential impact of video poker, which has been on hold since a state appellate court knocked down the law.

Negotiators are looking at other ways to help Quinn say he lessened the expansion’s impact, such as scaling back a provision that increases the maximum gaming positions at a casino to 2,000 from the current 1,200.

Then there is the view of Senate President John Cullerton, who says my inquiries about the possible shape of a deal with Quinn are “premature.”

“I’m optimistic that we can work out an agreement,” Cullerton said. “But I don’t expect it before the fall.”



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