The Illinois Senate on Wednesday again backed gaming expansion legislation that would permit slots at tracks for the purpose of enhancing purses.
If this legislation is approved and signed into law, Illinois racing will again compete with tracks in Indiana, Iowa, Ohio and other states already using gaming revenue to boost purses. The bill includes horsemen priorities:
* Favorable rates (from gaming positions hosted at the track) to support purses.
* Guaranteed minimum live racing opportunities (to prevent the tracks from diminishing racing to instead become solely casino operations – with no live racing).
* Immediate elimination of recapture, the woeful practice of tracks taking horsemen's purse dollars to subsidize their own operations. (Since 1995, when recapture began, the Illinois Racing Board has permitted tracks to deplete thoroughbred and standardbred purse accounts by more than $200 million. In this year alone, the IRB has agreed to allow tracks to take $11 million in horsemen's purse money.)
Senators voted 33-24, with one member voting present, in favor of the bill, known as Senate Bill 7. The Senate previously voted in favor of the same proposal but that version of the bill was tied to approximately a dozen other bills formulated as a “grand bargain” intended to break the Illinois government's ongoing impasse over the lack of a budget and related matters. The amended bill approved on Wednesday is technically disconnected from the other bills in that package; its fate is now no longer contingent on whether they also are approved.
Still, caution is in order. The stalemate between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and legislative Democrats – now approaching its third year – is ongoing. While bipartisan talks appear to be accelerating at the Capitol, it remains to be seen when the governor and lawmakers of both the Senate and House might reach agreement on a comprehensive budget, the final terms of gaming legislation, or related matters. The spring legislative session is scheduled to end May 31.
Speaking to WBBM radio in Chicago, Gov. Rauner indicated he might support the gaming legislation, which also would authorize casino licenses for Chicago and other locations within the state, if it's part of an overall “grand bargain” package. “I believe new revenues through the casino are part of that grand bargain, and I've said I'm open to whatever package can move the needle to a balanced budget, and I've said I'm open to local control. So the answer is, if that came as part of a package, I could be supportive of that,” he said, according to WBBM.
On Thursday, the Illinois House assigned SB 7 to its Executive Committee for consideration.
Senators Back IRB Plan to Share Pari-Mutuel Tax Dollars with Purse Awards
Senators on Wednesday also advanced a measure that, if approved by the House and signed into law, would allow the Illinois Racing Board to transfer $500,000 from its own budget into purses. The proposal is the culmination of months of discussion between the state's three horsemen's associations – ITHA, IHHA, ILHBPA – and IRB officials concerning the most appropriate terms for transferring any dollars from the IRB to purses.
As included in budget legislation known as Senate Bill 6, the plan reflects our desired language and makes clear that funds sent to the purse account may “be used exclusively for making purse awards.” This will prevent pari-mutuel tax money from going to the tracks as part of “recapture” or to support the horsemen's associations. Moreover, the agreed language is crafted to ensure the IRB will not, by virtue of transferring pari-mutuel tax dollars from its own budget to purses, expand its regulatory authority.
Illinois horsemen welcome the prospect of a small one-time boost for underfunded purses in our state. However, the legislation does not specifically require that these additional funds be dedicated to Illinois bred-restricted races. ITHA President Mike Campbell earlier this spring urged the IRB to ensure that any such dollars from its budget are used to bolster purses for those Illinois races – thereby supporting Illinois breeders and Illinois jobs – but track operators strongly objected to that approach and the IRB stopped short of offering any commitment in this regard. (Arlington increasingly has pumped purse dollars into stakes races, which by and large benefit out-of-state or even out-of-country interests, to the detriment of Illinois horsemen and breeders.)
The Illinois Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Foundation also urged the IRB to focus, first and foremost, on using these funds to support Illinois bred-restricted races.
Should the IRB's proposal ultimately be implemented, the IRB plans to allocate $500,000 to purses as follows: $259,662 for Arlington, $82,457 for thoroughbred races at Hawthorne, $37,475 for Fairmount Park, and $120,406 for harness races at Hawthorne. The Senate narrowly approved SB 6 on a 31-21 roll call, with three members voting present. Following the Senate vote on SB 6, the Senate sponsor put a parliamentary hold on the bill to prevent it from traveling to the House for consideration. It is not clear when the hold might be removed.
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