05/19/2005 11:00PM

Slot machine proposals find new life


CHICAGO - Legislative proposals that could bring slot machines to Illinois racetracks, or give racetracks a percentage of revenue generated at riverboat casinos around the state, are back on the table as the Illinois state legislature seeks to assemble a budget plan.

The prospect of racetrack slots has arisen in the last two years, with the state government starved for revenue and tracks eager to cash in on any expansion of gambling in Illinois. As recently as two weeks ago, racing industry figures downplayed the chances of favorable legislation passing this year, but the climate in the state capital of Springfield apparently has changed.

No bill had been introduced in either the Illinois House or Senate directly addressing the racing industry as of Friday afternoon, but two proposals have been floated, according to sources close to the legislative maneuvering. One proposal would direct 3 percent of adjusted gross receipts from riverboat casinos to the state's racing industry. The other would bring slot machines to the racetracks themselves.

A racetrack slots bill would be fashioned along the same lines agreed upon by racetracks and horsemen's groups during an effort to approve slots in the 2004 legislative session. Under that proposal, tracks would be allocated some 2,950 slots, with 1,150 of them going to Arlington, 1,000 to Hawthorne, 500 to downstate Fairmount Park, and the remainder to harness tracks.

Proposals to tinker with the statewide gaming industry have swirled for several years, but they have become entangled in a mass of competing concerns, not the least of which has been Gov. Rod Blagojevich's opposition to the expansion of gambling. Earlier this spring, though, Blagojevich proposed doubling the number of slots and table games at Illinois casinos. The casino industry reportedly would support that idea if the state's onerous 70-percent tax on casino revenues - the highest such tax in the country - was abated.

While some believed racetracks were closer than ever to receiving some sort of windfall, Arlington's president, Cliff Goodrich, sounded a cautionary note.

"This is like deja vu," Goodrich said. "There's nothing concrete. There are a lot of potential solutions out there, but it's just much too early to tell."

The legislative session ends May 27, and the wrangling over gaming expansion is expected to intensify next week.