SPRINGFIELD -- Lawmakers, industry groups and Gov. Pat Quinn’s office are exploring ways to expand gambling in Illinois without putting slot machines at horseracing tracks, possibly including a casino subsidy of the racing industry.

SPRINGFIELD -- Lawmakers, industry groups and Gov. Pat Quinn’s office are exploring ways to expand gambling in Illinois without putting slot machines at horseracing tracks, possibly including a casino subsidy of the racing industry.


Andrew Mack, a public relations executive who represents the Illinois Harness Horseman’s Association, said horsemen still prefer to have slot machines at the racetracks, but they are open to other ideas.


However, horsemen also doubt that casinos have much interest in helping the horseracing industry.


“The horsemen are not closing the door on impact fees or revenue sharing, but there would have to be an ironclad method in getting that money to the horsemen,” Mack said.


One reason horsemen prefer to see slots at racetracks is that past attempts to share revenue have failed. The state has been unreliable in appropriating money owed to the industry from revenues of the state’s 10th casino, which just opened in Des Plaines, Mack said. As of Dec. 31, the state owed the industry $27 million, he said.


Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, the Illinois House’s point man on gambling issues, said progress is being made on a possible gambling deal, but slots at the tracks remain the main hangup.


“If the racetracks didn’t get slots at tracks, what could they get in return?” he said. “I do not believe there will be a bill unless the horse racing industry has permanence and consistent revenue to keep them afloat.”


Other people involved in a meeting last week on the issue included Sen. Terry Link, D-Vernon Hills, Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, and representatives of Gov. Pat Quinn’s office, the Illinois Casino and Gambling Association, and the horseracing industry.


Discussions, not negotiations


Lang described the meeting as being more of a discussion of concepts, rather than negotiations over potential legislation


Expanding gambling in Illinois has become the equivalent of assembling a house of cards. Certain provisions are necessary to ensure the support of certain lawmakers, and if those provisions are removed, the whole thing collapses.


Rep. Raymond Poe, R-Springfield, said he can’t support a gambling expansion that does not address the horseracing industry’s financial health.


“We have to enhance those purses in some way, and gambling would help that,” Poe said.


Mack said adding slot machines at tracks would put Illinois on a level playing field with other states.


“With the slot machines, it raises the purse level,” Mack said, and that’s what horsemen race for.”


When top horse trainers take their best horses to out-of-state tracks with better purses, it affects other areas of the industry as well, like breeders. 


Kenneth Walker, owner and operator of Walker Standardbreds, a commercial horse breeding operation in Sherman, said he supports adding slot machines to racetracks.


The drop in registered stallions, as well as the number of mares bred at his stable and the prices they sell for, reflect the industry’s failing financial health, he said.


Threat to casinos?


Quinn staunchly opposes putting slot machines at racetracks, saying it would create a “top heavy” gambling expansion package and that tracks then might cannibalize casino revenues.


The governor’s argument echoes that of the state’s existing 10 casinos. Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino and Gaming Association, said he is not opposed to adding casinos in the right market, but existing casinos are already seeing their revenues drop.


“We’ve seen a 34.5 percent decrease in our revenues since 2007,” Swoik said. “When the 10th license opened in Des Plaines, they are doing very well, but it has affected the revenues of other casinos.”


An attempt last spring to increase the number of Illinois casinos and install slots at racetracks, including the Illinois State Fairgrounds, failed in the face of Quinn’s opposition. A scaled-back proposal then fell short in the General Assembly in the fall.


Lang said there’s no indication that Quinn has changed his stance, but he does believe there is some wiggle room.


“The governor is a reasonable man,” Lang said. “There are things that can be done to seem as if he hasn’t gone back on his word. There’s all kinds of ways to talk about how to make this happen.”


An election year


“I think people are interested in getting to a resolution,” Lang said. “But some people at the table are only interested in a resolution that benefits 100 percent them.”


Lang, Murphy and Swoik all acknowledged that gambling expansion will be a tough vote this year, when every member of the General Assembly is up for re-election.


“It took 20 years to pass the bill that passed the House and Senate that the governor didn’t sign,” Murphy said. “Betting against a gaming bill passing is never a bad bet.”


However, he also said the state desperately needs more revenue, and more gambling would be one way to raise it.


Lang agreed that the state’s budget mess could serve as an incentive for lawmakers to pass some sort of gambling legislation.


More revenues can’t come too soon for Walker. He said he’s considering “a big sale” of his horses.


“We’ve had to cut back on employees, and we don’t have as many mares of our own like we used to,” Walker said. “We keep trying to survive, hoping we’ll get slots at the racetrack or an impact fee.”


David Thomas can be reached at (217) 782-6292.