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Illinois Lawmakers Face Gambling, Prisons, Assault Weapons

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Illinois Lawmakers Face Gambling, Prisons, Assault Weapons

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Lawmakers will be staring down some of the higher-profile issues in Illinois when they begin their fall session Tuesday. But resolution of gambling, state facility closures, immigration and medical marijuana proposals could come in the form of dramatic confrontation, negotiating-table settlements, anticlimactic if symbolic votes, or no decisions at all.

Expanded gambling, shaping up a few weeks ago as a veto-override clash, could be sidestepped during the six-day session in favor of a hoped-for agreement with Gov. Pat Quinn in January. Lawmakers meeting during the next two weeks might vote against Quinn's efforts to close state facilities, likely with little practical effect. And the Democratic governor's splashy call for an assault-weapons ban could disappear without fanfare.

Although scheduled annually for lawmakers to decide the fate of gubernatorial vetoes, the fall session is not limited to that. An emerging bipartisan proposal to equip illegal immigrants with driver's licenses will be considered, along with a plan to allow the medical use of marijuana, narrowly defeated in recent years.

And the state comptroller warned last week that there isn't enough money to cover operations for several agencies through the June 30 end of the fiscal year. One legislative aide said there have been preliminary talks with Quinn's office about potential supplemental appropriations.

A few weeks ago, a massive expansion of legalized gambling — twice approved by the General Assembly but never given Quinn's blessing — looked ripe for an override, at least in the House. Less certain would be an OK in the Senate — where a veto push would start because the legislation originated there.

Proponents of allowing five more casinos in the state — including one in Chicago — and slot machines at horse-racing tracks say it's necessary to increase state revenue and compete with neighboring states luring away Illinois gamblers and their pocketbooks. Quinn has objected, saying the plan lacks regulatory oversight and fails to put money toward public education.

But Quinn told The Associated Press earlier this month he believes a compromise is in the offing. Of major assistance in that scenario, according to House sponsor Rep. Lou Lang, is newly offered assistance of House Speaker Michael Madigan.

For nearly 20 years, the Chicago Democrat has recused himself from negotiations about gambling to avoid a potential conflict of interest with his private law practice, which he said might serve clients interested in casino development. Lang said Madigan no longer has the conflict — something Madigan spokesman Steve Brown confirmed without elaborating — and has orchestrated discussions designed to lead to a deal.

"It's a very big issue, and the speaker, with good reason, likes to involve himself in the big issues," said Lang, D-Skokie, "so ... perhaps he can be helpful in the process of getting the governor to the table."

Senate President John Cullerton favors a negotiated pact, but hasn't committed to action before January, when lawmakers are scheduled to meet next, spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said.

Quinn's office did not respond to requests for comment. In earlier comments to the AP, Quinn sounded uncharacteristically upbeat about a casino plan.

"I'm optimistic we can put something together," he said.

In crafting a state budget last winter, Quinn slashed spending with plans to close several correctional facilities and units for mental health treatment and care of the developmentally disabled.

Lawmakers objected, sending him a budget with money appropriated to keep open places like the Tamms high-security prison and the women's lockup at Dwight. Quinn stood firm, reducing that allocation by $57 million and saying he wanted to use the money for other programs, such as child protective services.

Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, is preparing an override of that budget-bill reduction, Phelon said. But it would only mean Quinn couldn't spend the money as he pleased. It would not force the governor to keep prisons and other sites open.

Lawmakers believe the facilities are still needed and wanted to save jobs, particularly those employed at prisons in economically hard-hit southern Illinois areas.

Sen. David Leuchtefeld, R-Okawville, hopes he doesn't lose gun-related legislation he sponsored to a Quinn assault-weapons ban. Leuchtefeld's proposal would close a loophole that prevents Illinois residents from buying ammunition through the mail from Illinois suppliers.

It easily won legislative approval, but Quinn used his amendatory veto power to substitute language banning new assault-style weapons, large-capacity ammunition magazines and similar guns. His move, which some legislative experts believe exceeded his authority, came after a gunman killed 12 people in a suburban Denver movie theater.

Leuchtefeld's got no qualms about debating gun control if the governor finds a friendly legislator to write a separate bill, not hijack what he sees as commonsense legislation.

"He has to know it's going too far to do what he did," Leuchtefeld said. "He has to know I wouldn't allow it to happen."

Among other issues, Quinn, Cullerton and Republicans announced support last week for legislation to allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses, making roads safer with better-trained and more insured drivers. Discussions are under way about whether additional money might be necessary for human services and child protection.

Lang said he is close to the 60 votes he needs for House approval of a medical marijuana bill, allowing people with specific illnesses — who, for example, get pain relief from marijuana — to possess small amounts purchased from licensed dispensaries. Medical marijuana use is OK in 18 states and Washington, D.C.

"This is without any question the tightest and most highly regulated medical marijuana bill ever written in this country," Lang said.

Copyright Associated Press

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