SPRINGFIELD , Ill. — An Illinois legislator pulled back Thursday from a plan to deny state construction funds to counties and towns that refuse to allow video poker after Gov. Pat Quinn asked him to shelve the idea.
The episode demonstrates the economic and political maze the gambling issue presents for Quinn, who is counting on newly legalized video poker across Illinois to pay for a huge state construction program — but who risks public backlash at the polls in November if he pushes it too hard.
State lawmakers legalized video poker machines to tax as a funding mechanism for last year’s $31 billion capital construction package. The bill allowed communities to opt out and many have, especially around Chicago.
State Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-Moline, this year introduced legislation that would bar such communities from projects funded by the tax, on grounds that they shouldn’t benefit if they don’t pay.
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” said Jacobs, who is among the Legislature’s strongest defenders of legalized gambling.
His bill didn’t go over well in anti-gambling communities.
“It’s extortion, strong-arm tactics the mob would use,” said Anita Bedell, executive director of the Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, and an anti-gambling activist.
Bedell said she asked Quinn’s office to intervene. Jacobs had been scheduled to present the proposal Thursday to the Senate Executive Committee but said the governor’s request encouraged him to drop it for now.
Quinn favored the gambling extension and has warned that revenue would suffer if too many communities don’t participate. Nonetheless, his staff asked Jacobs to hold back his hammer.
“The governor asked me to get off this bill and I did,” Jacobs said. “I thought it would be a difficult bill to pass, I wanted to make the point. You can’t allow people to opt out of taxes because of the moral reasons.”
Quinn’s office declined to comment on the issue.
State Reps. Angelo Saviano, R-Elmwood Park, and Dan Reitz, D-Sparta, introduced a proposal to charge opt-out communities a fee equal to the maximum amount of revenue that video poker machines would generate. It has not been assigned to a committee.
Critics said either plan would change the rules in mid-game.
Will County, outside Chicago, has not voted for a ban but was considering it. Matt Ryan, chief of staff for County Executive Larry Walsh, said several members of the its governing board are “irritated the legislation threatens a loss of projects simply because they oppose this funding mechanism.”
In the largely pro-gambling Metro East area, Madison County Board Member Chris Slusser said, “I do think if we’re going to collect the revenue here and another county opts out of doing that, they shouldn’t benefit with projects.” He added, “But charging them is a terrible idea.”
Collinsville City Manager Bob Knable said: “It makes sense if you’re not contributing maybe you shouldn’t be supported by it. But capital projects also benefit the people driving through the area or who live nearby. It’s kind of like school systems: I don’t have kids in school but I still support education through taxes.”
The Illinois Gaming Board was given the job of developing regulations for the machines and collecting the taxes. A spokesman said its goal is to have it running by the end of the year.
Estimates when the capital bill passed last year predicted annual revenue of up to $300 million. Quinn’s office was unable to provide an estimate that accounts for the more than 60 communities that aren’t participating.
Joe Parente, the Madison County director of administration, said the debate is diverting attention from the importance of the projects. “They need to be funded somehow and these projects are important not only to our area but to the entire state,” he said. “However it happens … it’s crucial to this area for projects like the new Mississippi River bridge to be funded.”