Illinois Gaming Board Chairman Aaron Jaffe condemned newly-revised gambling-expansion legislation as a “Christmas tree” bill that had undergone only “cosmetic changes” to address concerns by state regulators. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
SPRINGFIELD-Illinois’ top gambling regulator Friday ripped revamped legislation to bring Chicago a casino, saying the bill’s architect made only “cosmetic changes” to the latest version that passed the Senate and reigniting a roiling feud with a top lawmaker.
“It doesn’t deal with my concerns, no. Absolutely not. They made some cosmetic changes with regards to a Chicago casino…on a couple of things. But they haven’t addressed a whole slew of things they should talk about,” Illinois Gaming Board Chairman Aaron Jaffe told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Sen. Terry Link (D-Waukegan), the legislation’s top Senate sponsor, blasted Jaffe’s comments Friday, accusing the agency’s board chairman of far exceeding his authority.
“He doesn’t regulate what we write in a bill,” Link told the Sun-Times. “That offends me, really. This guy is so overboard on this it’s unbelievable.”
On Wednesday, the Senate voted 32-20 on a revamped gambling-expansion package that would bring a casino to Chicago and casinos to the south suburbs, Lake County, Rockford and Danville. The legislation also would outfit racetracks and potentially Chicago’s two airports with slot machines.
It marked the third time since 2011 that the Senate passed legislation to expand gambling in Illinois. Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed two earlier versions, insisting upon a series of ethical reforms.
To meet the governor’s demands, Link added a prohibition on political contributions from gambling interests, created a new executive inspector general for gambling and gave Jaffe’s agency oversight over a Chicago casino commensurate with all other Illinois casinos.
Quinn is holding his cards close to the vest on the latest gambling bill that moved out of the Senate, saying only that it was moving in the “right direction” but stopping well short of endorsing the effort.
But Jaffe was far less discreet, saying the latest changes aren’t enough and panning the newest gambling plan for being put on a legislative fast-track by its sponsors in the waning weeks of the General Assembly’s spring session.
“They did with this what they did with every other bill. They passed it out of committee without showing anybody. It goes on the floor of the Senate, and the next day they pass it,” said Jaffe, a House member from 1971 to 1985. “It’s just not the way you do legislative business, at least not when I was in the Legislature.
“If Chicago wants a casino, and they should have one, you could do that in 25 pages, maximum. But what happens, everybody wants a piece,” Jaffe said.
Link shot back, labeling Jaffe’s criticism of the legislative sausage-making process “ridiculous.”
“That’s ludicrous. This bill has been around. You could tell me as much about the bill as he could,” Link told a Sun-Times reporter. “The only thing we changed in this bill is we incorporated all of their suggestions.”
Link said he made 28 revisions to this latest effort that were sought by the Gaming Board, including removing a provision that would give the state lottery power to set up casino-style wagering over the Internet.
“We tightened up a bill that’s been around three or four years. To say it popped out of committee and is on the floor, that’s being ridiculous,” Link said.
With regard to a Chicago casino, which has emerged as one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s top spring legislative priorities, Jaffe said the legislation still doesn’t give state gambling regulators oversight over construction contracts over a city casino.
Jaffe cited a 2003 instance where the Gaming Board and Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin settled on the casino paying a $3.2 million fine after it hired a heating-and-cooling contractor that had ties to organized crime.
“In the preamble, they say yes, the Gaming Board will have total control. But do we? I don’t think so. I think the Chicago casino authority…is the one that’s going to undertake building the casino. The worst fines that have come out of the Gaming Board come when they have contracts like this,” Jaffe said.
Link said the Gaming Board hasn’t issued construction contracts for any other casino and has the power to immediately shut down any construction work involving contractors it deems ethically suspect.
“They can’t hand out the construction contracts. He’s trying to go way way overboard,” Link said.
Jaffe also ridiculed several revenue set-asides spelled out in the legislation. The plan would put $13 million annually into a fund for “depressed communities,” $6.5 million annually to the “Latino Community Economic Development Fund,” $6.25 million annually to soil and water conservation districts and $75,000 annually to the Chicago Botanic Garden, among other things.
“I don’t think they’re necessary at all,” Jaffe said. “It’s a Christmas tree bill — something for everybody that’s orchestrated, I think, with the wrong thoughts, and I’m not happy with it.”
But Link countered that Jaffe, as a gambling regulator, needs to keep his nose out of policy questions about how gaming revenue gets spent.
“He far exceeds his boundaries when he says he doesn’t like the set-asides,” Link said. “If the governor says he doesn’t like them, that’s a different story.”
“It just mystifies me he could make those kinds of statements. And to tell us what set asides we should do? That has nothing to do with the Gaming Board. They have no authority to say what we can say and can’t say in a piece of legislation like that,” Link said.
Last month, in a colorful but rare breach of Senate protocol, Link and Jaffe tangled intensely during a hearing that devolved in a name-calling exchange between the two public officials.
At that hearing, Link sarcastically welcomed their face-to-face encounter, telling Jaffe “it’s about time” after the gambling regulator had not met with him to talk about the legislation and instead had “whipped the living daylights out of me on TV, stage and screen.”
Jaffe countered that Link had “attacked me more times” and questioned whether the senator had actually read the gambling bill he’d sponsored. Jaffe went on to call Link “atrocious.”