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.
That is why Louisiana's casino industry is frustrated by that state's ban.
"Donations come with the expectation of access, but not support," said Wade Duty, executive director of the Louisiana Casino Association. "It will likely grant you a greater degree of influence."
Louisiana lawmakers instituted their ban in the mid-1990s after expanding gambling. Pennsylvania did the same thing in 2006.
"I was uncomfortable with the gobs of money being thrown around," said Pennsylvania Sen. Jane Earll, a Republican who chaired a gambling oversight committee that passed the legislation. "Unlike other industries, (gambling interests) live and die in the political arena, and as a result, they're willing to pay for that."
In Illinois, the gambling industry is regularly tapped for fundraisers on both sides of the aisle. Some interests traditionally write big checks to the most powerful lawmakers, while others scatter smaller checks to the rank-and-file.
The gambling package passed by the legislature had something for every sector.
While existing casinos generally opposed the expansion, they got lower tax rates and won the option to add machines and expand on land. Racetracks have pushed for slot machines for years. And video poker interests were given a clause aimed at speeding up the industry's rollout after years of regulatory setbacks.
Chicago landed one of the five new casinos at the urging of new mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The biggest giver was Arlington Park, its owners and related companies, handing out $253,095 in the last 18 months. That exceeded the $244,000 from existing casinos and the $152,000 from video poker interests.
A spokesman for Arlington Park Chairman Richard Duchossois said the wealthy businessman is politically active in order to try to save the industry he cares about.
"He believes in horse racing. He's in love with horse racing, and he doesn't want to see it go south in Illinois," said Thom Serafin.
Serafin said Duchossois would welcome a ban on gambling interest political contributions so long as it applies to both racetracks and casinos.
Jaffe points to the latest expansion bill as evidence that it's time for that ban. He said several clauses in its 400-plus pages seem to favor gambling interests over sound regulation, underscoring for him how close the industry is to the politicians who write the laws.
For one, video poker establishments would be able to get "provisional" licenses within 60 days, regardless of whether the state had completed the necessary background investigations.
The legislation also places time limits that regulators must meet in issuing licenses, which Jaffe said could make it impossible to thoroughly vet all sites and bidders.
The five new casino licenses would have to be issued within a year, while the gaming board would have 120 days to issue slot machine licenses to horse tracks or write applicants a letter telling them why they have not been approved yet and when a decision will be made.
"The people who take the longest to vet are the people who we deny," Jaffe said.
But Link said the industry did not have undue influence on the legislation.
State Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, also a sponsor of the bill, said the gambling interests aren't always on the same page on legislation. He has gotten about $92,000 from gambling interests since the start of 2010, making him one of the top recipients.
"The casinos don't agree with the video poker people, and the video poker people don't agree with the horse tracks, and the horse tracks don't like either of the other two," Lang said.
Lang and Link said they won't out-right oppose a ban if it comes up in the General Assembly, but they expressed reservations. Lang said gambling interests are already scrutinized, and Link said he was concerned a ban would make it easier for rich candidates to dominate elections.
In other states, the industry has fought bans through the courts. Louisiana's Supreme Court overturned a ban on video poker contributions, but a court with a different makeup later upheld the ban on casino-tied contributions.
Pennsylvania's ban was thrown out in a narrow ruling by the state's top court, but lawmakers rewrote it last year to comply with the justices' ruling.
New Jersey's ban has been in effect since 1977 and withstood a 1989 state Superior Court challenge. In that decision, the court upheld strict regulation given "the concentration of wealth that exists with casinos and the disproportionate weight of that wealth."
But Lang said many other industries, such as insurance and real estate, face state regulation and arguably have more money to give politicians.
"They give to me because I understand their industry, not because I'm on their side," he said of gambling interests. "What they're looking for is an ear."
Twitter @BillRuthhartCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun