Proponents of gambling expansion in Illinois are split on whether major legislation will get signed into law in 2018, with some going as far as saying there's a better-than-even chance.
But, as in past years, others are betting efforts will come up short.
Those who follow gambling issues closely at the Capitol say expansion is no sure thing in 2018, but some lawmakers say a newfound urgency to compete with surrounding states and stay up to date with new technology will be enough to get all kinds of gambling legislation through.
"I think there's enough critical mass and opportunity in the General Assembly to get something done," said state Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside.
Zalewski, long a proponent of gaming, is sponsoring legislation, House Bill 479, which would legalize and regulate online daily fantasy sports sites such as DraftKings and FanDuel.
Such websites have operated in a legal gray area the past few years as state attorneys generals, including Lisa Madigan, have deemed such activities illegal gambling under current law. Zalewski said "it makes no sense to operate in a regulatory vacuum."
The measure passed the Senate overwhelmingly last May but stalled in the House.
Many bills under consideration, from Zalewski's to one that calls for a massive expansion of riverboat casinos, have been proposed before. But perhaps altering the landscape this year is a U.S. Supreme Court decision expected this spring that could legalize state-sanctioned sports betting.
The pending case, Christie v. NCAA, will address the constitutionality of a federal law that prohibits sports betting in most places outside Nevada. Should it be overturned, states like Illinois could try to cash in on the windfall.
Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, a research firm that tracks the gambling sector, said in a report that Illinois is one of 11 states likely to move sports betting legislation this year, hoping to take advantage of an industry previously relegated to a handful of states and offshore websites.
"It would be wrong to not study this and see if it would be beneficial for the state should sports betting be legalized in the United States," said state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie. "If this is going to be a viable legal business, we don't want to be behind 30 other states who have legalized it."
Lang, though careful not to stake out a position, said the legislature will likely hold committee hearings on the topic in the upcoming session.
"If the Supreme Court does overturn Christie v. NCAA, it would be smart to have some enabling legislation in place," said Steve Brubaker, a lobbyist for the horse racing industry.
Gambling legislation comes up nearly every session as lawmakers seek to fill the state's coffers with desperately needed tax revenue, while giving an economic boost to the industries and communities they serve.
With the lottery, riverboats, horse racing and video gambling, Illinois received more than $1.3 billion in tax revenue from the industry in 2017, a nearly 8 percent increase from the prior year, a Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability report found.
But the report and industry experts say Illinois could be close to a saturation point, brought on by the meteoric rise of video gambling across the state.
"What's happened is states have sort of maxed out their capacity to expand gaming," said Clyde Barrow, a gaming expert and professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. "Sports betting is really one of the last frontiers of expanding gaming."
Barrow said a lot of variables play into the amount of tax revenue states could receive from sports betting, but the nationwide market right now "is in the billions of dollars," despite the federal ban.
Senate Bill 7, another bill that passed the Illinois Senate, would allow for the creation of new casinos in Chicago, south suburban Cook County, Danville, northern Lake County, Rockford and Williamson County in southern Illinois. The legislation would also permit slots at racetracks to help prop up the state's struggling horse racing industry.
Though the legislation is similar to the framework of previous gambling expansion bills that have failed, including two vetoes from former Gov. Pat Quinn, state Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, said they cannot wait any longer.
"We're hoping the House would take up the gaming bill and pass it and save northern Illinois from what would be a really big blow," Syverson said. "Even if they hold it up for another year, we'll be too late."
Syverson said a proposed Indian casino, hotel and convention center just a few feet north of the Wisconsin state line threatens to devastate Rockford's convention and tourism industry. Leaders in other areas near state borders have expressed similar frustrations.
"Some would say that Chicago has a casino, and that casino is in Indiana," Lang said, referring to the multiple gambling locations just over the state line.
Lawmakers and lobbyists say gaming legislation can happen this year, but the big lift will be holding together an industry that's often at odds with one another. This may mean a "Christmas tree" bill where everyone gets something.
"It would make sense to pull everyone in," said Donna More, a lobbyist who previously served as general counsel to the Illinois Gaming Board. She adds that there's an 'arms race' for gaming revenue, so, for example, "unless you tie additional casinos with slots at the tracks, it doesn't work."
But not all are convinced additional casinos are coming down the pike soon. Illinois Casino Gaming Association President Tom Swoik said he would be surprised to see gaming expansion pass this year.
Brubaker was even more blunt. "We won't see any gambling expansion of any kind become law in 2018," he said, citing election-year politics, the relatively short legislative session and competing gaming interests.
But Lang was more optimistic.
"It will happen, whether it's this year or next or the year after," Lang said.
Contact Brenden Moore: 782-3095, email@example.com,
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