Gambling interests cover their bets with campaign contributions
Nearly three-fourths of the lawmakers who voted on doubling the number of Illinois casinos accepted political contributions in the last 18 months from the gambling industry — a practice several states ban.

Casinos, racetracks and video poker interests shelled out about $812,000 to lawmakers, the governor and Chicago's new mayor since the beginning of 2010, leading up to the landmark vote on a measure to allow five new casinos, permit slot machines at the horse tracks and fast-track video gambling in bars and truck stops.

The cash flowing from casino companies, horse-track tycoons and video poker investors shows just how much attention the titans of those industries pay to the politicians who legalize and oversee their business.

In the last 10 years, the industry has given Illinois politicians nearly $10 million, a Tribune analysis of campaign fundraising data found.

The contributions may only grow if Gov. Pat Quinn signs off on the legislation that would put Illinois on the path to becoming the third-biggest state in gambling revenue, behind Nevada and New Jersey.

That unnerves Aaron Jaffe, the state's top gambling regulator, who says it's time that Illinois follows the lead of six other gambling states that don't allow political contributions from certain gambling interests.

"We should ban it," said Jaffe, chairman of the Illinois Gaming Board. "My job is to protect the public interest, and I would hope that legislators know that is their responsibility, too."

Jaffe, a former Democratic lawmaker and judge, said so much money entering the political process gives the industry outsize influence on rules and regulations.

Illinois lawmakers haven't seriously considered such a ban. The state just recently instituted limits on how much people and businesses can give to candidates.

But some lawmakers now say it may be time to consider banning gambling contributions, especially as the state is poised for surging growth in the industry.

"It is a lot of money," said state Sen. John Millner, a Carol Stream Republican who voted against this year's legislation and received contributions from casino and racetrack companies. "For public perception, that might not be a bad way to go."

Three of the top four gambling states have a ban: New Jersey, Indiana and Pennsylvania. Other states with bans include Louisiana, Michigan and Iowa.

In Illinois, among the biggest recipients of gambling cash are the Democrat and Republican leaders of both chambers, along with their caucus committees that help fund the most contested races.

Lawmakers are quick to say there is no connection between their votes and campaign contributions. State Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan, who sponsored this year's measure, said he takes "great offense" to suggestions that campaign donations influence his vote.

While the Tribune's analysis of campaign contributions shows that about 72 percent of lawmakers got money from gambling interests, those voting for the legislation got, on average, roughly 60 percent more from the industry than those voting against it.

Some lawmakers, including Millner, are simply opposed to legalized gambling. Others vote the wishes of a casino or racetrack in their district regardless of where their campaign money comes from.

State Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, said he voted for the legislation because his district includes Arlington Park. The racetrack has given him $1,500 in the last 18 months.

"There isn't any amount of money from either side that is going to get you to go against your district," said Murphy, who added that he is concerned the racetrack might fold.

Critics say the money, at the very least, gets a lawmaker's attention — a foot in the door for gambling interests to make their pitch.