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Illinois gambling-expansion bill advances

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- An Illinois House committee just now approved the biggest gambling-expansion bill since the state's current casino industry was set up a generation ago. It would allow slot machines at Fairmount Park at Collinsville and the state's other horseracing tracks, as well as five new casinos.

The House Executive Committee approved the measure (SB737) on an 8-3 vote, sending it to the full House. A floor vote could come as early as tomorrow. If approved, it would then move back to the Senate.

Opponents include the current casino industry, which says it is already reeling from recent losses and doesn't want the new competition.

The sponsor, Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, presented the measure as a way to help alleviate the state's budget crisis through state fees and taxes attached to the expansion -- as well as bolstering a state horseracing industry devastated by competion from tracks in other states and casinos here.

``One of the core purposes of this bill is to save this (horseracing) industry,'' said Lang.

Provisions include allowing slots at the tracks, and setting up five new casinos to join the state's current 10-casino industry. The new ones would be in Chicago (run by the city), two in the north and south Chicago suburbs, one in Rockford on the Wisconsin border, and one in Danville on the Indiana border.

Lang says the changes would bring into state coffers $1.3 billion in one-time startup fees from the gaming industry. About $900 million of that would be earmarked to help pay the state's backlog of bills, and the rest would be for capital projects. Lang said the plan would also create an additional $1 billion a year in annual state tax revenue, about about 50,000 jobs.

The measure includes things for existing casinos, including adding allowable table positions, a $2 million renovation tax credit, and targeted breaks in the taxes they pay to the state.

The provisions were clearly meant to address existing casinos' concerns about the new competition they'd be getting, and it clearly didn't work. Yesterday Casino Queen President Timothy Rand testified against the bill. Today, a casino industry lobbyist followed suit, in a rare alliance with the anti-gambling lobby, which also testified against it.

The casino lobbyist, Tom Swoik, told the committee the industry has lost 32 percent of its revenue since 2008 due to the state's smoking ban and other issues, with a loss of 1,450 casino jobs. Expanding gambling when existing venues are already losing business, he said, ``just doesn't make sense.''

If the bill doesn't pass the House and Senate by the Wednesday, the process would have to start all over again. Lawmakers meeting this week are still technically in the lame-duck session of the 96th General Assembly from last year. The new 97th General Assembly will be sworn in Jan. 12 (a week from Wednesday). The new Legislature remains Democrat-controlled, but by smaller margins.



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