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The Capital Bill Revisited

Chasse Rehwinkel

I gamble, therefore I write...or I write, therefore I gamble...honestly, they're pretty similar professions…

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Those of you who have been following my twitter know that last Wednesday a meeting between the Illinois horse track operators and the horsemen representatives led to a tenuous agreement on a bill proposal dealing with video poker machines coming to the state's horse tracks.

The general proposal is to have the excess machines that were opted out of the Capital Bill come to the horse tracks in order to help save the bill's funding.

The horse track's bill has yet to be introduced into the state legislature, but is projected to be on the congressional floor sometime within the next two weeks.

In order to help refresh some of your minds about this situation I'm republishing "Savior for the Capital Bill?," an op-ed dealing with why the horse tracks should get the Capital Bill's excess machines.

The following was originally published on December 9, 2009

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Representatives from the Illinois horse racing industry propose amendment to the capital bill

You can now add Illinois state economic recovery to the long list of topics discussed by Chicagoans over a pint of beer at their local Irish pub.

And while I can't take full credit for its addition, I can say that the issue has been at the back of my mind every time I've gone to a Chicago bar over the last few months.

It's not that the mixture of cheap alcohol and beer nuts somehow gives me a new appreciation for microeconomic theories, it's that every time I find myself in a bar, nowadays, I can't help but notice the glaring problem Illinois's plan for economic recovery faces.

It has been five months since Gov. Quinn signed the Illinois state capital bill into law and incited cheers from the crowd before him with the statement, "This is jobs. This is Illinois recovery." And ever since that high moment, the bill has faced tough questions, scrutiny and rejection.

The problem is not that Illinois doesn't need new jobs--our state, like every other, could desperately use them--it's the method the bill outlines for raising the funds needed for these new opportunities that has everyone worried. I'm talking, of course, about the legalization of video poker.

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Quinn signs capital bill before a nice crowd, this past July at a West Side Chicago school.

The problem, as I see it, is that the capital bill now faces the same Catch-22 the state lottery has been facing for decades. On the one hand, you have improvements to our state's infrastructure and the creation of new jobs, but on the other, you have the millions of dollars Illinois citizens stand to lose with gambling now available in local bars and restaurants.

This issue has caused more than a dozen communities to opt-out of introducing video poker to their neighborhoods, putting the benefits of the capital bill in jeopardy.

So is there a solution to this problem or is the capital bill doomed to fail before it really begins to take effect?

Last week, leaders from the Illinois horse racing industry came together to propose an amendment to the capital bill's video poker guidelines in an attempt to save the bill from possible failure.

The proposal asks the Illinois state legislature to allow the five horse tracks located in the state to take on the already community rejected video gaming machines.

"It's not an expansion in gaming, we want to be clear about that," stated Gary Mack, a spokesman for the Illinois harness racing industry. "It's a clear win-win for both sides. The capital bill gets its funding and the Illinois horse racing industry gets a much needed new revenue stream."

In the brief conversation I had with the harness racing representative--and no it wasn't over alcohol or beer nuts--Mack explained that horse racing in Illinois was suffering because so-called "racinos"--race tracks, with video gambling machines--were being legalized in other states, most notably in Indiana, and that customers where leaving Illinois race tracks for these, more diversified, gambling meccas.

So, not only would the transfer of the capital bill's unused video gambling machines to Illinois's race tracks save the bill's public works initiatives, it could potentially save Illinois's racing industry and the hundreds of jobs that the industry supports.

But back to the local Irish pub, what makes the racing industry's proposal so appealing to me is that it allows Illinois communities to reject the installation of video gaming machines in their bars and restaurants without the guilt of possibly helping to dismantle our state's economic recovery plan.

Gambling, especially video poker, doesn't belong in bars and restaurants--the risk of accidental problem gambling is too high in such an environment. Instead, moving some of the video poker machines to race tracks--heavily regulated places, where people are already coming for the express reason to gamble--seems like not only a financially smarter move but a morally more appropriate one.

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Video poker: more at home in the casino than the local watering hole

So far the proposal has been met with mixed results from the Illinois state legislature. While representatives from the horse racing industry have told me that Gov. Quinn has stated that the option might be worth looking into, a spokeswomen from Senate President John Cullerton's office told me that the state senator doesn't see a need to abandon the original plan quite yet, and that the bill's funding provisions were written under the assumption that some communities would opt-out.

I understand that important economic plans should be given a fair chance to flourish, but when presented with a counter proposal that could perhaps save more revenue and jobs, why not take a serious look at it?

We'll see if the proposed amendment can make its way through Springfield this Spring. Until then, I'll raise a glass to economic recovery and appropriate decision making.


This is for you Capital Construction and Economic Recovery Bill!



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