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Closer Look: Ban on gaming donations a tough sell

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CHICAGO — When Gov. Pat Quinn shot down a plan to boost gambling in the state, he called for more ethical safeguards and conjured up cautionary images of mobsters infiltrating Illinois casinos.

But his top suggestion to fix the proposal — banning political contributions from the gambling industry — would likely face a difficult road in a state with some of the most lax campaign finance laws nationwide, if Quinn really pushes for it and any lawmaker would sponsor such a reform in the General Assembly.

Many question if Quinn truly was motivated by the ethics and oversight concerns, or if he simply would never support the plan to establish five new casinos and slot machines at racetracks. Some of the plan's supporters question if aiming a contributions ban at one industry would be fair or constitutional. And Quinn could anticipate stiff resistance among lawmakers to doing away with such a fat source of cash.

Just ask Maryland.

The governor there proposed strict limits on donations from casino owners and some employees as part of a gambling expansion. But the proposal was pummeled by lawmakers until they ended up with what supporters say is a watered-down version that became law this year.

"What they did was take a very comprehensive bill and they (put) a big doughnut hole in it," said Delegate Luiz Simmons, a Maryland Democrat who has pushed gambling reforms. "It probably is almost moot."

The gambling industry — including casinos, racing parks and horsemen associations — has contributed nearly $10 million to Illinois politicians over the past decade, according to an analysis by good-government group Common Cause.

First on a list of the top 25 lawmakers receiving contributions was House Minority Leader Tom Cross, a Republican who received more than $530,000 from 2002 through 2012. Fourth was the sponsor of the vetoed gambling legislation, Rep. Lou Lang, a Democrat who received over $310,000. Another bill sponsor, state Sen. Terry Link, also a Democrat, was much further down at No. 14 with nearly $59,000.

Quinn received more than $46,000, according to the group.

Rey Lopez-Calderon, the executive director of Common Cause Illinois, said lawmakers should focus on ethical protections in gambling because of the industry's historic ties to organized crime and the state's reputation for rampant political corruption. Quinn's two predecessors are in prison, as he noted in explaining his veto.

"Part of the problem with corruption and the influence of money, why it's not just a trivial item, there's relationships that they've built up over years and years," Lopez-Calderon said.

Lawmakers were quick to disagree, arguing there's no tie between contributions and the legislation. Most of the state's 10 existing casinos opposed the expansion, saying it would have saturated the market and hurt existing establishments.

"The idea that gaming money brought me to this place is not true," said Lang, who has campaigned for expanded gambling for years. "I got some money from a bunch of casinos who opposed the bill."

Quinn's spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said the governor's concerns aren't over existing campaign contributions, but over the potential for problems.

The experience of trying to ban political contributions in other states has been varied. A handful — including Iowa, Michigan and New Jersey — have some type of ban. But not all attempts have survived constitutional challenges.

In 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down a ban prohibiting casino investors and executives from making any political campaign contributions after a developer challenged it in a lawsuit. Louisiana's ban, among the strictest, has survived First Amendment challenges.

Deciding what to do with Quinn's veto is brand new territory for lawmakers. They passed a gambling expansion bill last year too, but refused to give the legislation to Quinn because he'd threatened to veto it.

This year, they passed the bill in Springfield just a few votes shy of what would be necessary to override the governor's veto. Supporters said they would try to get the necessary votes before the fall legislative session, after the November election. "My plan is to forge ahead," Lang said.

He and others believe Quinn had no intention of signing any gambling expansion: Quinn waited until the last day to make a decision and opted against using his amendatory veto power to approve the bill while altering parts he didn't like. Signing the legislation would have allowed lawmakers to proceed with a planned trailer bill they said would address his concerns, including the campaign contributions issue.

"He's taken tens of thousands of dollars from gambling interests," said Democratic state Rep. Jack Franks, who voted against the bill because he thought the expansion was too big for the state. He said Quinn's call for more ethical oversight "rings hollow."

Meanwhile, the American Gaming Association and a Chicago gambling attorney who once provided legal counsel to the Illinois Gaming Board argue that such bans unfairly target the industry.

"If you're going to have a campaign contribution policy, it should be a broad, all-encompassing one," said Donna More, the lawyer. "If the governor is serious, this is something that is much larger than one industry."

Quinn would only say that he made his decision to prevent loopholes, though he didn't have specifics when pressed for what type of ban he'd like or how he'd work with lawmakers.

"We should have the strongest one possible," he said. "There's just too many potentials for ... political disaster and governmental disasters if we have the gaming people running around handing out campaign donations to politicians and aldermen."

Follow Sophia Tareen at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen.