Is Illinois's Casino Expansion Bill Awaiting Quinn's Signature On Life Support?

06/17/2011 03:08 pm ET | Updated Aug 16, 2011

As Illinois struggles with a massive budget shortfall, opponents of a controversial gambling expansion bill are wondering if the measure would cause more fiscal harm than good. The legislation, approved by the general assembly last month, has support from powerful politicians, lobbyists and businesses -- but Governor Pat Quinn doesn't seem ready to sign quite yet.

Quinn met Thursday with bill proponent Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other principal supporters of the bill. Though Quinn appears open to the idea of developing a casino in downtown Chicago, he said Wednesday that the 400-page bill is "bloated" and "excessive," adding that it would be “dissected” by his office before he even considers passing. Quinn added that the bill may need to return to the legislature, either during a special session this summer or during the October veto session, before it is resolved.

Despite Quinn’s reluctance to jump on board, Emanuel remains excited about the prospects of a Chicago casino as a job and revenue creator.

"I'm going to use that revenue to invest in Chicago's future," Emanuel said Thursday. "Our roads, our bridges, our broadband, our schools construction, our mass transit. That will keep us economically competitive."

But can gambling expansion fix Illinois’ fiscal woes? Supporters say the legislation is a much-needed new revenue generator for a cash-strapped state and its cities alike, but the bill's deterrents say it's not well-thought-out at best and encouraging the proliferation of social and psychological ills at worst.

Among the bill's most prominent detractors is the state's Gaming Board chairman Aaron Jaffe, who sounded off on the measure Tuesday.

"There are a million things they have to do that they haven’t considered," Jaffe said in a meeting, according to the Chicago Sun-Times "You can’t make perfume out of a pile of garbage.”

He went on to criticize the speedy manner with which the state legislature approved the measure and pointed out that his board would need to staff up considerably, at least double their current workforce, to oversee the new facilities -- a daunting task given existing budgetary limitations.

Opposition appears to have ramped up over the past week, indicating a dilution of the bill, if not abandonment altogether, could be around the corner.

Illinois Casino Gaming Association executive director Tom Swoik, who was present at the board meeting where Jaffe blasted the bill, told HuffPost Chicago he does not oppose further expansion but shared many of Jaffe's concerns with the manner in which it has been proposed.

Swoik described the bill as something similar to "a Christmas tree -- there's something in it for everybody but, because it's become so huge, everybody also has something in it that they dislike."

A survey released Wednesday by the Chicago Crime Commission showed that 54 percent of polled voters opposed the legislation "as an answer to the financial problems facing the state" versus 35 percent of respondents who were supportive. Slightly more respondents (55 percent) agreed with the statement that the legislation would be harmful to the quality of life for Illinoisans, compared with 41 percent who disagreed.

Several prominent bloggers, including Capitol Fax's Rich Miller, were skeptical about the survey's wording, commission spokesman John Pastuovic stood by its findings of "overwhelming" opposition to the proposal, which he said was approved "with very little input from average voters during the decision-making process."

"Opponents can mince words and can attack the survey's questions all they want but the reality is, if you look at this survey question by question, the response is the same: Illinois voters reject gambling expansion," Pastuovic told HuffPost Chicago.

Pastuovic's organization has stood firmly against the bill, which they describe as offering "an unparalleled opportunity" for organized crime to gain a foothold in legalized gambling across the state.

"We strongly believe this legislation is bad for Illinois and we feel Illinoisans feel the same way. This survey allows us to qualify that belief," he added.

Earl Grinols, an economics professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, said research has not indicated that communities near casinos will see much economic benefit.

Rather, Grinols said, casinos tend to "make a lot of money" for their owners but not benefit local economies on the whole. He said political support for casino expansion is a somewhat convenient approach for lawmakers to raise state revenue without increasing taxes -- but even the revenue gambling would bring in is questionable.

When asked whether an Illinois gambling expansion would hurt Indiana’s economy earlier this month, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said casino revenue is just a few cents on the dollar in his state and said Indiana will be fine without it.

"Casino expansion is an inefficient, poor way to raise money and is probably not justified by the argument that the state is hard up for cash," Grinols said. "Some people are going to be made very rich by this, and it's not going to be the people of Illinois."

Casino-gaming revenues have been down some 30 percent in Illinois over the past three years, and many specific complexes have struggled recently.

On Thursday, Majestic Star Casino in nearby Gary, Indiana, announced it would be cutting 50 jobs and closing a gambling floor on one of its boats. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009, according to the Associated Press.

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