A slots-at-tracks bill that Illinois horsemen had hoped would pass last week has been stalled until the end of May.
Members of the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association (IHHA) and Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (ITHA) have been lobbying strongly in Springfield for the past two weeks in favor of SB3146, and on May 6, the bill unanimously passed out of a House committee. However, the following day (May 7), it failed to reach the floor of the full House of Representatives.
“It’s very discouraging,” said Dave McCaffrey, IHHA president. “Sadly, when we were giving our roll call, the votes were always in our favor in both the House and the Senate.”
State legislators are slated to return to Springfield to debate the bill a few days prior to the May 28 deadline.
“We’re hoping they’ll bring this bill up for a vote when they return at the end of the month,” McCaffrey stressed.
SB3146 would permit Chicago racetracks to install up to 1,200 VLTs and allow other tracks, (such as Balmoral, Fairmount and Quad City Downs) to have 900 gaming machines. It is estimated that $400 million in fresh revenue would be generated for the sagging state budget, and provide a much needed boost to the horse racing industry in the form of enhanced purses and breeders perks.
The bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Bill Burns (D-Chicago), told members of the press on Friday that he believes the bill could have passed the House, but “faces roadblocks in the Senate.” Apparently, several Senate members have constituents that include riverboat interests who are vehemently opposed to electronic gaming expansion at the racetracks.
“Casinos just can’t stand that type of competition,” said Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association.
According to the ICGA, the state’s nine riverboats contribute over $1 billion into the state's economy annually.
SB3146 had enough votes to pass both Houses, McCaffrey said, but ran into a roadblock when House Speaker Michael Madigan declared he needed the support from Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago).
“We sat down with Cullerton and he told us he was in favor of a slots-at-the-track bill, but that we had to make the bill more appealing for the riverboats,” McCaffrey admitted. “Madigan never called the bill because he couldn’t get Cullerton’s support.
“I think Cullerton is under a lot of pressure from Senators in his districts,” he added. “The political game in Springfield is just a windstorm and our bill is caught up in it.”
The legislative process is halted for the next two weeks, while members of the House and Senate to return to their jurisdictions for election-year fundraisers and other commitments.
“If this bill doesn’t pass, then June 1, the horse racing industry as we know it in Illinois will die,” McCaffrey said. “Hawthorne and Fairmount are already destitute and will likely go out of business in the next year. I can’t say what will happen here (to Maywood and Balmoral), but we’re looking at backstretch closings and date cuts for this year. The IRB (Illinois Racing Board) is broke and they’ve already told us it will be unlikely they’ll be able to operate in November or December without legislative help.
“Without any help, it’s likely that the only track left in Chicago will be Arlington Park, since they’re still able to make a marginal profit,” he added.
And what about the three percent riverboat money that was supposed to be handed out to the Illinois horse industry nine weeks ago?
“More frustration,” McCaffrey noted. “On May 11, it’ll be 11 weeks that we’ve been waiting on a decision from the three-person judges panel, who is as yet, undecided on this money’s future. They were supposed to have made a decision after two weeks.”--By Kimberly Rinker