April 26, 2005

Lisa Madigan stands by ruling, backhands local pols

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has dealt (no pun intended) a blow to long-standing plans to relocate Casino Rock Island to a new location south of Rock Island.
Despite a personal meeting with Sen. Mike Jacobs and his dad Denny, Rep. Pat Verschoore, and Rock Island Mayor Mark Schweibert, she upheld a legal opinion issued by a deputy which maintains that the state gambling board does not have the authority to rule on whether such a move is permissible.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan refused to rescind an informal opinion written by a senior deputy attorney that says the Illinois Gaming Board doesn't have the power to allow the move.

However, a representative said her office would assist in writing a bill to clear up ambiguities in the Gaming Act over casinos moving.

State Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, and State Rep. Pat Verschoore, D-Milan, were disappointed in the outcome of the 90-minute meeting and will head back to Chicago to forge legislation that clears up the matter.

"It wasn't what we wanted," Rep. Verschoore said. "We still feel the language gives them the ability to move within their jurisdiction. They want the project to move forward, but they want all the i's dotted and the t's crossed," he said of the Attorney General's office.

The point was raised in the meeting that two casino boats -- in Joliet and Peoria -- already have moved under 2003 legislation that amended the state Gaming Act.

"The precedent allowed this in the past," Rock Island Mayor Mark Schwiebert said. "Frankly, we feel a little discriminated against since the gaming board administrator gave preliminary approval to acquire the site and begin site work."

The legislators are concerned about the opinion's impact on financing the $90 million project that would create 400 to 500 construction jobs at the new site near the intersection of Interstate 280 and Illinois 94.

The parties at Monday's meeting agreed the intent of previous legislation was to allow gaming boats to move within the jurisdiction that was licensed. But the Attorney General and her staff believe the law is ambiguous as to who has final approval, according to those at the meeting.

"We did everything within our power to convince the Attorney General that the advisory opinion (by her office) was wrong," said Sen. Jacobs, who wants a bill that clears up the Gaming Act's language to allow casinos to move within the boundaries of the jurisdiction that issued the license.

He's unsure if he can move the bill trough both houses without amendments, and he's worried about an anti-gaming attitude that pervades the house as well as whether Gov. Rod Blagojevich would sign such a bill.

"Before the meeting, we had no clear-cut path," Sen. Jacobs said. "Now we have a path, but it's full of rocks and goes up over a hill. There is some upside. We do have a plan and a direction we are now traveling, and Lisa Madigan said she would be helpful to us on that."

Rep. Verschoore has a sunnier outlook on passing legislation. "We feel confident we will get something done," he said. "This is too big a project to fall through the cracks. I think the governor will sign on if we pass the legislation."

A letter from a senior deputy attorney, considered an informal opinion, to State Rep. Don Moffit, R-Gilson, was released April 18, five days before the Illinois Gaming Board was scheduled to meet.

The Casino Rock Island's move wasn't discussed in open session at Friday's Gaming Board meeting.

Sen. Jacobs wondered if the Attorney General's opinion is connected with the possibility of gaming in the Chicago area. Last year, the Capri Casino Inc. was chosen to run a casino boat in suburban Rosemont, but the gaming board stalled action.

"I don't think you can ever miss that point," Sen. Jacobs said. "We have spoken openly that a Chicago casino would be great. We could be caught up in that. We could be caught up in that 10th license. I think that is a much more likely conclusion.

"No one wants to talk about the underbelly of it all," he said, adding that after a year of waiting and just days before approval, "all of a sudden this letter popped out of no where."

Mayor Schwiebert thinks it's more likely an overly technical interpretation of the law, though he did call the timing "a little strange."

He said a plan by the East St. Louis casino to move about 300 yards to accommodate an expansion, also requires gaming board approval and is being held up.

Casino moves were "allowed in other locations," Mayor Scwiebert said. "It is not being allowed in these two communities.

"It really isn't the same thing as relocating from East Dubuque to the Chicago area," he said. "This is the same workforce, the same jurisdiction, the same administration."

This represents a real blow to not only the Casino Rock Island, but to the trio of legislators who set out to get it straightened out. It now appears that what appeared to be a last minute glitch will turn out to be a real threat to the entire project.

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