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Gambling expansion bill on Quinn's desk

(MCT) — Legalizing slots at Illinois horse tracks is closer to the finish line, but the governor's office is still calling it a long shot.

For the second consecutive year, a gaming expansion bill has passed through the General Assembly -- but this is the first time it has actually reached the governor's desk. The legislation passed both the House and Senate on May 31 and was officially forwarded to Gov. Pat Quinn's office Friday.

Despite lawmakers' efforts, the governor's office has stated that its passage is far from guaranteed. Spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said Quinn will not sign any gambling bill without safeguards for Illinois consumers.

"He will not sign a gambling bill without strong ethical standards that protect the people of Illinois," Anderson said. "The governor's concern remains with the bill's major ethical shortcomings. He has repeatedly made those clear."

Horse owners, trainers and employees at Fairmount Park are again pinning their hopes to this latest attempt to expand gaming at the Collinsville track and Illinois' four other horse-racing venues by creating so-called "racinos," essentially permitting slot machines at Illinois horse tracks.

Track operators have long argued that casinos, as well as horse tracks in neighboring states, have a competitive advantage: They have attracted more horse owners because they can award higher purses. On average, horse tracks in Iowa and Indiana have awarded as much as three times the daily prize winnings of Illinois tracks because Iowa and Indiana tracks already have slots and can generate more revenue.

However, Anderson said the bill still includes a point of contention that the governor will not view favorably. She said one glaring issue is that the legislation does not include a ban on campaign contributions by gambling institutions as lawmakers in other states have done to keep corruption out of Illinois' gambling industry. Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Iowa, Michigan and Indiana have all approved such bans.

"He has major ethics concerns with the legislation," Anderson said. "He thinks it's critical with any gaming bill to have strong safeguards in place to protect people of Illinois and keep corruption out."

Illinois Horseman's Benevolent and Protective Association Director Lanny Brooks said he is more confident of this new bill's chances because lawmakers have excluded proposals to put slots at O'Hare International Airport and Midway International Airport and also included provisions to increase security at the Illinois Gaming Board in downtown Chicago.

"We have to take our best shot," Brooks said.

This current bill is the latest attempt by state lawmakers over the last several years to create what proponents believe will level the playing field. Last year, the General Assembly passed a gaming expansion bill, but Senate President John Cullerton did not officially send it to the governor because Quinn had already indicated that he would veto it.

Fairmount Park spokesman Jon Sloane said the latest bill is more attractive for the governor because of the potential to stimulate the economy in his state that is $9 billion in the red.

"All we can say is we believe the bill would be a tremendous benefit for the economy of Illinois, particularly in Southern Illinois and Fairmount Park in terms of jobs in construction and the benefit to a tremendous amount of people," Sloane said. "We think that's significant and are certainly hopeful that the governor will sign it into law."

By law, the governor has 60 days from the date the bill was placed on his desk to act. He can choose to either sign, veto, issue an amendatory veto or even not sign the bill, at which time the legislation would automatically become law at the end of the 60 days.

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