Friday, July 15, 2011

We’ll sweat it out this summer while pols figure out what to do with casinos

In all honesty, I’m not giving the proposed expansion of casinos in Illinois much thought these days. I'll think about it come October.

The General Assembly may have approved a bill calling for significant expansion – 5 more, including the long-desired casino in Chicago. But nothing is ever going to become of that bill.

IT’S ALMOST RIDICULOUS to pay it any mind. Whatever does happen, if anything, to add to the number of casinos across the state is going to be what is being negotiated in private by the political people of our state.

In all likelihood, the bill now on hold by the Illinois Senate (even though it has full legislative approval) will never be considered by Gov. Pat Quinn.

The legislators themselves are saying they fully expect to have to reconsider this issue when they return to the Statehouse in October for the fall veto session.

When that happens, whatever compromise that has been worked out will have to be voted on, and a lot of legislators who begrudglingly voted for this in May are going to wind up hating it in October. It will be so radically different.

QUINN JUST ABOUT confirmed that sentiment. Using his appearance this week in the East Side neighborhood to approve that coal-to-natural gas plant, the governor said he won’t be pressured into signing something into law that he despises.

Calling himself a “goalie for the public good,” Quinn said he is continuing to talk to all sides of this particular issue. Changes will be made in this bill before he ever gets around to addressing it.

Which is what makes me think this effort is doomed.

Because I’m sure that many of the things that will wind up getting stripped out of any casino expansion plan were the very things that persuaded many legislators to vote for it in the first place.

MANY OF US think of this as the bill that finally allows the city proper to have a casino – one that would be on a larger and grander scale than any of the existing casinos in Illinois; which started out their lives as riverboats offering cruises of the waterways with a little bit of gambling taking place on board (with nobody being shocked, shocked!).

But for everybody who considered a Chicago casino to be a priority, there is an equal number of legislators to whom keeping a casino out of Chicago was just as important.

Why would any city resident venture to Joliet, Aurora or Elgin (or even Des Plaines) if they can find something more impressive in Chicago proper? Officials representing the other casino communities would rather not have the competition.

And some people just vote “no” anytime the name Chicago comes up.

WHICH IS WHY this bill became so overbloated. So many things had to be added on so that those people could claim to their constituents that they got something, in exchange for letting Chicago have the casino whose idea has been around for so long that Jim Edgar used to be the big obstacle to its being built.

Now, it’s greed.

There are those who want to think of this as the Rockford-area casino bill. Or the Park City casino (between Waukegan and Gurnee near the Illinois/Wisconsin border). Or perhaps the unspecified south suburban casino bill.

There are even those who merely want to think of this as the bill that will let slot machines be set up at the racetrack at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield.

TAKE AWAY ANY of those things, and the amount of support for this dwindles. I’ve even heard from a few legislators who say they’re inclined to vote “no” if this issue comes up again just because the talks have become so complex and convoluted that it is difficult for them to follow what is, and isn’t, still in the bill.

That is why Quinn throws out strong hints that he hates this bill, but won’t come out and just use the “v” word. Talking “veto” now would diminish this issue’s chances of ever becoming reality.

Which might very well please the people at the Illinois Gaming Board, who oversee the 10 existing casinos and hate the way this expansion is being considered.

While there is a strong sense that what really bothers them is that they were not consulted during the bill’s crafting process, one cannot ignore board Chairman Aaron Jaffe, who previously called the bill “garbage” and is now telling WBEZ-FM how corruption and organized crime involvement in Illinois casinos would develop with the bill as currently written.

IT MAY BE true. But Jaffe also says that he is bothered by the fact that this bill was one of the last actions of the General Assembly before they adjourned for the summer.

“They passed it on the last day. Nobody knew what was in it,” Jaffe told the radio station.

Unfortunately, that argument won’t make much of a dent in the process. Because so much legislation gets passed at the last minute that Quinn would have to use his “veto” power to reject anything – if that were the going standard for propriety.


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