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Stormy Senate hearing pits outspoken casino regulator against gambling-expansion advocate
SPRINGFIELD-The lead legislative architect behind bringing new casinos to Chicago and the suburbs and Illinois’ top gaming regulator repeatedly hissed at one another Wednesday during a heated Senate hearing that did nothing to move the ball forward on gambling expansion.
Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) invited Illinois Gaming Board Chairman Aaron Jaffe, a frequent outspoken critic of earlier gambling expansion bills, and the head of the Chicago Crime Commission to Springfield to lay out their concerns so Senate Democrats could address them in their push to get a plan to Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk this spring.
But the effort quickly unraveled into an acrimonious showcase of statehouse politics at its worst with Jaffe and state Sen. Terry Link (D-Waukegan), the casino plan’s lead Senate sponsor, heatedly berating one another in a rare breach of decorum within the staid Senate.
It all revolved around efforts in the Senate by Cullerton and Link to get a bill to Quinn that would allow for a city-owned Chicago casino, casinos in the south suburbs and Lake County and slot machines at racetracks and possibly Chicago’s two airports.
Link’s plan, which could generate anywhere from $400 million to $1 billion for the cash-starved state, also would enable casinos to set up Internet wagering so bettors could play their games of chance from the comforts of their own living rooms, an idea Quinn dislikes.
Jaffe, who criticized an earlier Link casino plan as a “pile of garbage” lacking in any meaningful ethical protections, made clear during Wednesday’s hearing he isn’t philosophically opposed to allowing more casinos in Chicago or anywhere else in Illinois.
The key, Jaffe said, is that the Legislature must provide enough resources to hire at least 300 more regulators in his agency to police the industry properly, a staffing process that a top board official said is easily bogged down by time-consuming hiring rules.
Jaffe also insisted that the Gaming Board be the sole regulator of casinos because serious “conflicts” exist with the oversight structure envisioned for a Chicago casino by Link.
But in making his case, Quinn’s appointee over and over made clear his distaste with Link’s latest handiwork, which Jaffe described as a nearly incomprehensible 550-page “Christmas tree” larded up with a little bit of everything for every stakeholder in the debate.
“I doubt anyone in this room has clearly read that bill from front to back, quite truthfully, because it is a very complex bill,” Jaffe told members of the Senate Executive Committee.
Then, in a zinger aimed at Link who sat on the panel, Jaffe said, “I doubt the sponsor has done that, either.”
Link smiled uncomfortably at the barb and shook his head from side to side as Jaffe went on to make the case the Chicago casino authority Link wants should be set aside entirely, with full oversight of the casino’s construction and vending contracts going to the Illinois Gaming Board.
The Lake County senator bided his time until about midway through the hearing when Link’s turn to question Jaffe arrived, and the snark flowed back at the Gaming Board chairman.
“Thank you for being here today. It’s about time,” Link told Jaffe, a retired Illinois House member and former judge. “I’ve heard myself being criticized on TV, radio, everywhere else by you, judge.”
Jaffe fired back, sarcastically calling Link’s welcome “very magnanimous” and launching into a counterpunch that wound up silencing lawmakers in the committee.
“I’d say you’ve attacked me more times,” Jaffe told Link. “You’ve been absolutely atrocious in that regard.”
The venomous back-and-forth ended when Link dished more sarcasm back at Jaffe.
“If I’m ‘atrocious,’ it’s because you’ve whipped the living daylights out of me on TV, stage and screen, and I haven’t been on TV, stage and screen,” Link said, waving his index finger at Jaffe and drawing broad grins from some pro-expansion members of the committee.
Afterwards, Cullerton tried putting the best face on Wednesday’s hearing, which failed to deliver any consensus on how best to strengthen the expansion bill’s ethical safeguards.
“We gained a lot of information from the Gaming Board about how they think we can improve the bill,” Cullerton told reporters. “We learned that they have trouble hiring people. We’re going to see if we can help them do that, and we can get some clarification on the role of the Chicago ownership and the Gaming Board.”
Link, meanwhile, didn’t sound as if the hearing’s acrimony cleared the air between him and the outspoken gambling regulator.
“Well I don’t have a hatred for the judge by any means. I just don’t like being criticized in the media without ever talking to me. You can criticize legislation of mine all day long. I have no problem with that, but know what it says in the bill before you criticize it. Know that we didn’t introduce it on Tuesday and pass it on Thursday on the 12th hour. We didn’t do that,” Link told reporters. “This bill’s been around a long time so there’s no reason to not know it.”
Jaffe didn’t pull any punches afterward, either.
“Well I don’t like to look at myself as a stumbling block because I’m just a very loveable person,” Jaffe laughed, when asked if he regarded himself as an impediment to a gambling deal. “But I do have problems with certain members of the Legislature because I don’t think they answer to the public, and I don’t think they’re acting in the best interest of the public.”