Legalized Online Poker Remains in Illinois Legislators’ 2018 Sights

Updated: August 31st, 2018 by Haley Hintze

Illinois remains among the next handful of US states likeliest to legalize online poker in the near future, with the first of two legislative sessions discussing several possible gambling-expansion opportunities keeping online poker among the issues on the consideration list, even if it might end up waiting another year or two.

If there’s been a problem in Illinois in recent years, it’s that there have been too many of these expansion opportunities, with competing gambling-industry stakeholders in the Land of Lincoln battling fiercely enough that no consensus has been reached. Breaking this multi-year gridlock was one of the purposes behind the August 22 joint legislative session, held to reopen discussion of Senate Bill 7, which was introduced last year as a casino-expansion measure.

What turned into a four-hour-plus session originally billed as discussion of possible sports-betting legislation quickly expanded, as expected, to include all the gambling topics up for consideration. The original bill’s synopsis called for the licensing of six new casinos, additional gaming positions at existing casinos and slot machines at horse racing tracks. Yet a major amendment was added to the mix, calling for racetracks to be allowed casino-style table games in addition to slot machines — essentially becoming “racinos” — and increasing the number of video gaming terminals (video slots) a business can have — from five to six — plus authorizing more off-track betting parlors.

Then there’s all the sports betting and fantasy sports and online gambling interest, much of which had to be pushed off to a second hearing already scheduled for early October. With all these matters being pushed forward by interested parties, it’s easy to that the puzzle will take some time to be built, with not everyone likely to get what they want at once.

“I think there’s enough wind at our backs that if we struck the right balance, many [lawmakers] would say to themselves that this is worth doing as part of a totality of circumstances,” said Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside, following the hearing, commenting to a local outlet. “No matter who wins in November we’re going to remain structurally behind in what we need as far as finances. So there’s going to be a lot of pressure on us to do it.”

“There’s a balance to strike and hopefully the sooner the better, because I think it makes sense to put this issue behind us and move on to other stuff,” Zalewski added.

The ongoing gambling-expansion discussions come as Illinois continues to battle record-setting deficits exacerbated by political gridlock between the state’s Democratic-dominated legislature and Illinois’ Republican governor, Bruce Rauner. The state operated in a limited fashion for more than two years after Governor Rauner and the state’s legislative leaders could not come together on budget compromises. That battle cost the state over a billion dollars in interest penalties alone, and has increased the chance that Rauner will be defeated in his reelection bid in November.

No matter who wins, whether Rauner or Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker, the calls to find new revenue sources will only increase. And that’s where the proposed gambling expansion enters the picture, as one of the leading budget-improving candidates. 

One factor that will assist the state’s consideration of online-gambling expansion is the seeming cannibalism occurring between the state’s existing casinos and the newly-proliferating video slots, found in a few thousand businesses across the state. When one considers the average take for all slots-styled machines, whether at casinos or in bars or small storefront businesses, that slots take per machine has declined over the past few years. It’s an indicator that gambling expansion in a sector other than slots is most likely to generate that needed revenue. Whether Illinois’ legislators fully recognize this, or are able to act on that realization, has yet to be determined.

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