Legislators consider gambling growth

By Deanna Bellandi

CHICAGO – The Rev. Phil Blackwell fears Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Illinois legislators will do something he considers immoral: expand gambling.

He might have to worry.

The idea has gone nowhere in recent years and Blagojevich – who last year supported gambling expansion to pay for statewide construction projects – abandoned the idea in this year’s proposed budget, but some lawmakers still consider it an option.

And one says it’s just a matter of time before they start talking about it seriously again.

“I don’t think it’s really gone away,” said Democratic Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie.

Just a few short months ago, everyone was talking about gambling expansion as the way to pay for new roads, bridges and schools – a plan they hoped would persuade downstate lawmakers to go along with a bailout for cash-strapped mass transit agencies in the Chicago area.

The bailout eventually passed, but gambling expansion – including the first casino for Chicago and thousands more slot machines at riverboats and horse tracks – was doomed by feuding between Blagojevich and some lawmakers.

Complicating the issue also is the indictment of a Blagojevich administration insider who once served as an adviser to the governor on gambling. Blagojevich’s former chief political fundraiser Christopher Kelly was indicted in December and accused of trying to disguise gambling debts as private business expenses. He has pleaded not guilty and has not been charged with any form of political corruption.

“I think people got a little, a little gun shy after that,” Republican House Leader Tom Cross said after the governor’s State of the State address last week.

The state already has nine operating riverboat casinos and a long-dormant 10th license that is finally emerging from years of legal limbo. The Illinois Gaming Board has said it wants to rebid that license this year.

But expanding gambling even further has been a sticky issue. And rather than pick up on the momentum the issue gained last year, Blagojevich distanced himself from the idea during his annual address to lawmakers. Instead, he proposed to partially lease the lottery as a way to raise $7 billion of an $11 billion capital bill.

“We’re open to legislators’ ideas, but at the conclusion of last year it seemed clear that we’d all be spinning our wheels to stay focused on gaming expansion to fund the capital plan,” Blagojevich spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff said in an e-mail.