Short of money, Illinois lawmakers again look to casinos

By Christopher Wills

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – When state government runs short of money, Illinois officials inevitably talk about legalizing new casinos. They’re doing it again, this time to pay for building roads, bridges and schools.

The idea was far from becoming a reality Tuesday, but appeared to be getting serious consideration as the four legislative leaders sought a resolution to the state budget crisis.

They’re discussing the possibility of legalizing a Chicago casino and using the money for education and for a major new construction program to repair the state’s aging infrastructure.

Insiders say House Speaker Michael Madigan has been reluctant to back the idea, and a spokesman for the Chicago Democrat mocked the return of an idea that pops up year after year without results.

“It’s a wonderful adventure,” said spokesman Steve Brown.

As the legislative leaders continued their slow negotiations, several state-employee unions threatened legal action if the budget impasse interferes with paychecks.

The unions – led by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees – argued that officials have a legal obligation to pay workers even though the budget expired last week. The unions said they would go to court unless the governor and comptroller agreed to deliver paychecks on time.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich agreed the employees should be paid.

But the Illinois attorney general’s office said that issue was settled in 1991, the last time a budget stalemate threatened paychecks. An appellate court ruled then that officials have no authority to spend state money without a budget in place.

Comptroller Daniel Hynes has said if a budget isn’t approved Wednesday, it will begin to delay processing of paychecks and state aid to schools.

All four legislative leaders say they want a capital program that would provide billions of dollars to improve roads, bridges and schools. They also say they’re at least open to the idea of a new Chicago casino to pay for it.

But, despite days of meetings, they haven’t agreed to begin working out a detailed proposal. Lawmakers of both parties called Madigan the chief holdout.

“I think there are three of us that have some interest in it. I’m not sure about House Dems,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego.

Sen. Christine Radogno, a key budget negotiator for Senate Republicans, speculated that Madigan has positioned himself to be the key to an agreement so he’ll have maximum leverage in negotiations.

Other lawmakers said he might be motivated by a political desire not to give Blagojevich a source of news releases and ribbon-cuttings for years to come.

Rep. Gary Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat and budget negotiator, rejected the idea that Madigan’s reluctance is political, arguing that the House has passed many bills the Democratic governor could use to his advantage.

Instead, Hannig pointed to the many unanswered questions about a construction program and gambling expansion.

Should the rest of the budget be held until a capital program passes? How should the construction money be allocated? What can be done to allay lawmakers’ fears that Blagojevich would use the money to reward friends and punish enemies? Who would own a Chicago casino?

“I would say just pass an operating budget, put it on the governor’s desk and then start work on a capital budget,” Hannig said.

Senate President Emil Jones, however, has signaled that he prefers to work on both parts of the budget simultaneously.

One reason might be that taking more time to work on a gambling proposal would open the door to more demands _ more casinos, financial aid to race tracks, video poker, even an exemption to state smoking restrictions for casinos.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley urged quick action on a new budget, including money for construction. “We need it for Illinois’ safety,” he said, reaffirming his support for a city-owned casino.

While legislators pondered a casino deal, Blagojevich and Hynes traded insults.

Hynes criticized Blagojevich for not signing legislation that includes money for the families of dead soldiers and for hospitals that serve the poor. The legislation has been on Blagojevich’s desk for nearly two months.

“His insensitivity is beyond description,” said Hynes, a Chicago Democrat.

The governor’s aides responded that the legislation includes raises for state officials, so Hynes essentially was lobbying for his own pay increase. They said Blagojevich supports most of the bill but hasn’t decided whether to approve the raises.