New Gambling Plan Pushed Before Last One Finished

Gaming board hasn't contracted computer work, or written rules yet

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    Video gambling was approved in Illinois in 2009. Two years later, not a single machine has been installed.

    As commander of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in southern Illinois, Michael Bennett is among those still waiting for the state to implement a video gambling law so patrons can plug money into machines and, if lucky, walk away with a jackpot.

    He shouldn't hold his breath.

    More than two years after Gov. Pat Quinn signed the law, Illinois still doesn't have all the regulations or a centralized computer system in place to launch the planned network of betting terminals at bars and restaurants, veterans and fraternal organizations, and truck stops.

    Even so, that hasn't stopped some lawmakers from wanting to expand gambling even more. They tried unsuccessfully earlier this month to advance a plan that would add five new casinos in Illinois, including one in Chicago, and slots at racetracks, though Quinn is opposed to that provision. They have promised to try again, maybe later this month, when they return to work in a one-day session at the Illinois Capitol.

    The Illinois Gaming Board said it's working to implement the video gambling law, blaming part of the delay on a lawsuit that was settled four months ago, but some advocates accuse the board of dragging its feet. In the meantime, state officials can't tell places like Bennett's VFW post in Herrin when they might be able to get betting terminals and have them up and running.

    "I really don't know,'' said board chairman Aaron Jaffe.

    Bennett has resigned himself to the waiting game. "They've passed an idea that they can't follow through on,'' he said.

    Video gambling got the OK from lawmakers and Quinn in 2009 as a way to help the state pay for its first construction spending program in over a decade. The program was to lay out $31 billion to fix crumbling infrastructure from roads and bridges to schools and other transportation projects.

    Jaffe said there were legitimate reasons for the delay, not least of which was a legal challenge filed just before the law took effect in September 2009. Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, who is also a liquor distributor, sued the state over higher taxes in the legislation to pay for the statewide capital construction program. That lawsuit, Jaffe said, threw the legality of video gambling into question until the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the law was not unconstitutional.

    "How do you go ahead to start giving out licenses and doing that when tomorrow you might have to vacate the license?'' Jaffe asked.

    Though it may have survived a legal challenge, the law has taken a beating in public opinion. Gambling critics decried the legalization of video gambling and about 80 communities and counties took steps to ban it. Chicago already had a ban on video gambling, which would have to be repealed to allow it.

    The state has projected that video gambling would account for up to a quarter of the revenue needed for the statewide capital construction program; so far there has been no impact on projects even though video gambling isn't up and running, said Kelly Kraft, a spokeswoman in Quinn's budget office. Money from other sources makes up the majority of the revenue already spent and the state took into consideration that some communities in Illinois might disapprove of video gambling, she said.

    The delay in implementing video gambling irritates one of the General Assembly's biggest proponents of gambling, Democratic Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie, who said the board has "dragged its heels."

    "We have something called the constitution, and the constitution says that when we pass legislation it ought to be implemented and not slowed down by some bureaucrats,'' Lang said.

    Lang said there was nothing to stop the gaming board from working to put in place the infrastructure to implement video gambling while the lawsuit was going through the courts.

    Quinn has no complaints about the pace at which video gambling is moving. "I have full confidence in the gaming board and its staff," he said.

    Jaffe said the Legislature loves to accuse the gaming board of dragging its feet.

    "They don't even know what they passed," said Jaffe, a frequent critic of lawmakers who was recently reappointed by Quinn but still needs to be reconfirmed by the Illinois Senate. He has been critical of the more-recent casino expansion push, saying lawmakers were undermining proper regulation and "should be ashamed of themselves."

    To pull off video gaming, Jaffe said the board will have to hire many more investigators to handle licensing for all the people involved, from machine manufacturers and distributors to the establishments where the terminals would be located to repair people.

    The rest of the rules to regulate video gambling also have yet to be written, and the gaming board must put in place a central computer system that will keep track of money going in and out of the machines and alert regulators to any tampering.

    The state is rebidding the contract for a computer vendor to make sure it's done right after a previous bid process was canceled late last year, said Matt Brown, the state's chief procurement officer.

    Brown said vendors are being solicited to see what kind of computer system they can build and how it would work for the state. After a vendor is chosen and a system is built and put into place, video gambling could be rolled out about six months later, said Gene O'Shea, the gaming board spokesman.

    But when? "That's the big question," O'Shea said.