SPRINGFIELD — The smart money says that if Illinois lawmakers are going to legalize sports betting this spring, it's going to be part of a larger gambling expansion deal that also includes new casino licenses and expanded betting options at horse tracks.
Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker did not want to squander the opportunity to bring in new state revenue through legalized sports betting, made possible by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year, by tying the issue to the parochial gambling debates that have failed to produce an agreement for the better part of a decade. The governor is counting on more than $200 million in sports betting revenue in his spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1.
But with their scheduled May 31 adjournment approaching, lawmakers are faced with the reality that winning broad support for a sports betting bill likely will require resolving issues they've been kicking around since then-Gov. Pat Quinn in 2013 vetoed the last gambling expansion bill passed by the General Assembly. Because Pritzker has placed such a high priority on sports betting, all sides see it as leverage to achieve their long-sought goals.
While everyone wants a piece of sports betting, the other issues are little changed. Chicago, Waukegan, Rockford, the south suburbs, and communities in central and southern Illinois want new casinos. Horse tracks want to have slot machines and table games to support their operations and offer larger purses for race winners. Meanwhile, the state's 10 existing casinos, stinging from the loss of bettors and revenue to legalized video gambling at bars and restaurants, don't want to contend with more competition.
State Rep. Mike Zalewski, a Riverside Democrat who's leading sports betting negotiations in the House, said he continues to work independently from fellow Democratic Rep. Bob Rita of Blue Island, who's leading gambling expansion discussions. Zalewski plans to file a revised sports betting bill next week.
He acknowledged, however, that there are members on both sides of the aisle who will want to follow the lead of local officials calling for the two issues to be handled together. "I'm sort of aware of the dynamic, and we're very much trying to work through it," he said.
Chicago has been seeking a license for a city-owned casino for close to two decades, but Quinn twice vetoed bills that would have granted it. Outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration is willing to back sports betting -- if the city finally gets its casino.
"The city of Chicago supports sports wagering and the legalization of it within a comprehensive amendment that provides for a publicly owned Chicago casino license," city lobbyist Derek Blaida told lawmakers Thursday during a House committee hearing on gambling expansion.
Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot also wants a Chicago casino, but a spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on whether her support for a city casino is separate from the issue of sports wagering.
Some Democratic lawmakers from Chicago are intent on the city getting a casino, especially because so many residents drive across state lines to gamble.
"Our money is going to Indiana. Our money is going to Wisconsin," state Rep. Luis Arroyo said. "We just want our dollars to stay in Chicago,"
But the city doesn't want any of that money to be wagered at slot machines or blackjack tables at horse tracks, which puts it directly at odds with the state's horse racing industry.
"The governor has made clear that he is committed to responsibly legalizing sports betting so that Illinois doesn't lose out on revenue from this newly authorized market, especially as other states move forward," Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said. "Additionally, as discussions with working groups continue, the administration looks forward to reviewing other gaming measures that increase revenue for the state this legislative session."
Track and horse owners say bringing in new revenue through expanded betting options -- including sports wagering -- is essential to the survival of their industry, which has seen tracks close and owners take their horses to other states where venues offer a wider variety of gambling and larger purses.
"If we're going to survive, we need the gaming (expansion) bill," said Bob Molaro, a former state lawmaker who lobbies for Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero. "And actually, to be quite honest, as horsemen are leaving in droves, we need it now. We do need it in the next four, five weeks. It cannot be put off if we really want to save this industry."
That line of argument resonated with some House members.
"Horse racing is thriving in other states, and I'd like to see it thrive in the areas of the state that it's existing in now and get better," said Rep. Emanuel "Chris" Welch, a Hillside Democrat who represents a district near the shuttered Maywood Park race track. "And anything that we can do as part of this conversation to make that happen, I'd like to see that happen."
The state's casinos, however, believe creating new licenses or allowing race tracks to have slot machines and table games would only further erode the business they've lost to neighborhood establishments that offer video gambling.
"Saturation and cannibalization are not abstract talking points," said Tom Swoik, executive director the Illinois Casino Gaming Association, which represents nine of the state's 10 casinos. "They are real economic concepts, and they are affecting the brick-and-mortar casino industry."
In light of all those conflicting interests, Arlington Park President Tony Petrillo said the best path forward would be to heed Pritzker's call for a stand-alone sports betting measure. Arlington's parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., in March purchased a majority stake in Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.
Breaking from the rest of the horse racing industry, Petrillo said sports betting should be kept separate from other gambling issues to avoid a situation where "if a big gaming bill does not pass, we walk away with nothing."
Even if it's kept separate, the debate over how sports betting should be implemented is far from resolved. House members are still wrangling over several competing proposals and trying to reach agreement on a variety of details, including whether professional sports leagues should get a cut of the revenue.
"We will try our best to get everyone aligned on a vision," Zalewski said.