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Durbin cautions of gaming effects

Senator says casino expansion targets wrong source to fund state

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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

CHICAGO - U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin cautioned state lawmakers Monday against using casino expansion as a fallback revenue source, saying gambling tends to attract seniors and poor people who lose money "they can't afford to lose."

The Illinois Senate last month approved a $13 billion capital program that would rely on a trio of new casinos, including one for Chicago, and an expansion of existing riverboat gambling sites. House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat who has been cool to gaming expansion in the past, has promised to hold public hearings to air the scope of the Senate plan.

At a Chicago appearance, Durbin, D-Ill., said he is not morally opposed to gambling or the idea of adding a "couple" of Illinois casinos "here and there." But Durbin voiced concern that lawmakers could become overly reliant on new gambling.

"I really, really think we ought to stop and catch our breath and say, 'Is this the future of Illinois - that every time we want to do something, we'll just build more casinos?'" he said. "When that becomes the answer to every question, I start to worry about it."

He said most casino visitors are not tourists.

"Most of the people who go in are low-income people and elderly people who lose money that they can't afford to lose," Durbin said. "That to me seems like a wrong way to finance the important programs that we need in this country."

Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich has said he supports the Senate casino expansion as a preferable way to generate capital funding, rather than raising taxes on working families. Asked what other revenue sources the legislature should consider besides gaming, Durbin suggested leaders should be "honest."

"I think they should be more honest with people," he said. "Selling off state assets and building casinos will only take you so far."

Blagojevich, in his first term, suggested selling or leasing the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago to offset budget problems - an idea that was widely panned.

More recently, his administration proposed selling or leasing the state lottery to bail out public pensions.

State government has not had a long-range capital program for several years, and critics have said Illinois stands to lose billions in federal matching dollars without one. Durbin said Illinois also loses money as rising construction costs take away purchasing power from the unspent funds.

The current impasse in Springfield on a capital plan is blamed partly on the increasingly hostile feud between Madigan and Blagojevich. The governor is aligned with Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, who also has had disagreements with Madigan.

"I wish I could blame the Republicans, but I can't figure out how to do it," Durbin joked. "I hope that they'll come to their senses and that the Democratic leaders down there will get together and compromise."

Democrats who control the legislature and governor's office are dependent on Republican support, too, to pass a capital-spending bill.

Mike Ramsey can be reached at (312) 857-2323 or ghns-ramsey@sbcglobal.net.


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