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Gaming board, lawmakers aim to overcome insults

Published: Monday, April 15, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – A verbal fracas between state regulators and pro-gambling lawmakers – including an exchange of insults and accusations as if they were kids in a schoolyard – has resulted in cautious pledges to work together to end a stalemate and address criticisms that have helped defeat two consecutive proposals to expand gaming in Illinois.

Years of hostility between the Illinois Gaming Board and legislators boiled over at a hearing in Springfield. The hearing was called for precisely such a clearing of the air, and once the dust settled, board officials said they will work with lawmakers to amend the bill and satisfy their concerns, although the main critic of the expansion plans remained wary.

“If they’re sincere, I’ll be sincere with them,” said Aaron Jaffe, the board chairman. “If they’re really interested in regulation, we’ll all sit down and talk.”

The board is tasked with ensuring integrity in gambling in Illinois and has been vocal about the need to keep out organized crime. Among its concerns is ensuring it has ultimate oversight over a proposed Chicago casino and ensuring it has the staff it needs to keep tabs on casinos and other gaming statewide.

A follow-up discussion is expected to occur this week, and a hearing on amendments could be held before the end of the month, said Rikeesha Phelon, spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago. She called the hearing “productive in many ways.”

The legislation, which includes adding five casinos and allowing slot machines at Chicago’s two major airports, still must get through the full Senate and the House. And there’s no guarantee that Gov. Pat Quinn – who vetoed the two previous measures, citing ethical concerns – will sign it.

But the bill’s primary sponsor said late last week he was feeling “very, very good” about its odds.

“There’s a general feeling among a lot of (legislators) that they want to get this done,” said Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan. “Hopefully (the Illinois Gaming Board) will work with us.”

Lawmakers have been trying for years to pass a gambling measure. Jaffe has widely criticized the efforts, calling one proposal “a pile of garbage” during a 2011 television interview, and saying it could open the door to organized crime and political corruption.

Jaffe and the board’s four other members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. Gaming board staff conducts background checks on everyone who works in the industry – from casino owners to janitors – and the board was credited for yanking a license for a casino in Rosemont because of concerns about organized crime.

Jaffe’s comments have irked lawmakers who support the gambling expansion because they believe his criticisms are based on inaccurate information – a claim Jaffe denies. Supporters also think Jaffe’s statements have influenced Quinn, who has made cleaning up Illinois government a central theme of his administration and who’s said it’s important to keep “mobsters” out of gambling operations.

Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for Quinn, said the governor has great respect for the work the gaming board has done to prevent corruption. She declined to talk specifics about the latest gambling bill, calling it a “work in progress,” but said the bill sponsors had made some positive changes to it.

The legislation approved by a Senate committee last month would add casinos in Chicago, Danville, Chicago’s south suburbs, Lake County and Rockford. It also allows current and future casino licensees to apply for an Internet gambling license and green-lights slot machines at racetracks. The Chicago casino licensee would be allowed to apply for up to 4,000 slot machines that could be operated at Midway and O’Hare airports.

Supporters say the proposal could provide between $400 million and $1 billion in revenue for a state in such a desperate financial situation that it has a backlog of about $9 billion in unpaid bills and the worst credit rating of any state in the nation.

The measure has some new provisions designed to make it more palatable to Quinn and the gaming board: It would prohibit political contributions to lawmakers from the gambling industry, calls for an inspector general to monitor gaming and gives the state gaming board more authority over the Chicago casino.

When Cullerton learned that Jaffe and the head of the Chicago Crime Commission still oppose the bill, he invited them both to last week’s hearing.

The meeting got testy at times, with Jaffe calling Link “atrocious” and the senator returning the jabs. Jaffe also admitted he hadn’t read the latest bill, but accused lawmakers of not doing so either. And he questioned why the legislation – which exceeds 500 pages – is so extensive.

The two sides hit on at least two issues they plan to discuss further: the Chicago oversight question and speeding up hiring so the board can add the staff it needs. Jaffe said he’ll wait to see what “happens on paper” after the talks.

“Senator Link controls the bill,” he said. “We’ll see what he does.”

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