Ill. leaders discuss project funds

By Deanna Bellandi

CHICAGO – House Speaker Michael Madigan said Wednesday he wants a closer look at a plan to pay for a massive state construction program by expanding gambling, something Gov. Rod Blagojevich and other top legislative leaders from both parties tend to favor.

Madigan plans public hearings in Chicago and Springfield to make sure Illinoisans understand the Senate-passed bill that’s pending in the House. The measure would create three new casinos, including one in Chicago, and allow existing casinos to expand to pay for a roughly $13 billion capital program that would bail out Chicago-area mass transit systems.

“I don’t think the people of Illinois have had an adequate opportunity to learn what’s in this bill,” Madigan said after leaving a meeting at the Thompson Center with Blagojevich, Senate President Emil Jones, House Minority Leader Tom Cross and Sen. Christine Radogno. Radogno was filling in for Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, who was out of state but participated by phone.

It was a rare meeting between the governor and the legislative leadership during a session that has been marked by bickering between the Democrats who control Springfield, especially Blagojevich and Madigan.

Blagojevich said there was agreement on the “big issues” between him, Jones and the two Republicans – Watson and Cross. Madigan left the meeting early because of other commitments.

Consensus included the “size and scope” of the infrastructure bill and a publicly owned casino in Chicago, Blagojevich said.

The number of casinos shouldn’t “be an obstacle” to getting a capital bill passed, Jones said. Larded-down gambling measures have failed before.

When asked if he was wedded to the idea of three new casinos, Jones said: “I’m not wedded, I’m quite certain that we reasonable minds can come together to get the job done.”

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said no dates have been set for public hearings on the capital bill.

Besides new casinos, the proposal the Senate approved last week would allow existing riverboat casinos to expand by thousands of gambling positions, such as slot machines. The proposed gambling expansion “probably places this region No. 2 to Las Vegas in the nation,” Madigan said.

Madigan didn’t want to talk specifics in the pending bill, but Brown said later that his position on a Chicago casino is that “if it’s OK with the city, generally speaking it would be fine with him.”