By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – State lawmakers are considering a number of changes to Illinois gambling laws, including a measure that would lift the prohibition on gambling on in-state colleges and universities.
Other measures discussed by the House Executive Committee Wednesday, April 28, would legalize and regulate certain internet gambling programs, or I-gaming, and ban “sweepstakes” machines which mirror video gambling but are otherwise not regulated by the state the same way slot machines are.
Rep. Mike Zalewski, a Riverside Democrat who was one of the lead architects of the gambling expansion bill in 2019 which legalized sports betting, said the prohibition on betting on Illinois collegiate sports teams was put into the law “at the behest of the universities.”
But as sports betting becomes widespread in neighboring states, it would be easy for an Illinois gambler to travel to place a bet on an Illinois team, Zalewski said.
He said the prohibition “reduces our marketplace and makes us less of a robust marketplace than we otherwise would be.”
University of Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman addressed the committee as well, noting his opposition to the bill.
Whitman said crossing the border to gamble is “easier said than done,” and Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, said as someone who lives right in the middle of the state, he agrees.
Whitman said it was a “major concern” that U of I athletes may be in direct contact with someone who is betting on them.
“They’re living amongst the people who are betting on them, which is strange to know that somebody who lives in the dorm room right next door might be betting on them, somebody who was involved with one of our teams as a manager, video person, might be betting on them,” he said.
He also said college athletes often “live on their phone” and receive social media hate commentary that “in some cases directly references gambling losses.”
“They are engrossed in their phones, and…most of the time they base a lot of their self-concept or self-image about people they’ve never met, what they say about them on social media,” Whitman said. “And that’s a daily battle that we fight in college athletics today. By allowing people in our state to bet on our own student athletes, we’re only opening the door and inviting people to have those intense, threatening, abusive interactions with our student athletes and that’s something that myself and my colleagues strongly oppose.”
Zalewski said his amendment to House Bill 849 allows universities to petition the Illinois Gaming Board to suspend wagering on in-state universities or colleges for a period of up to six months if “the college or university has a reasonable belief that a player of that team has been influenced, has suffered mental or physical injury, or has otherwise been affected by a wager.”
Whitman said that he appreciated the amendment, but it would be insufficient in remedying such an incident.
Trevor Hayes, head of government relations at the sports gambling company William Hill, said Illinoisans today can bet on Illinois college teams from within the state, but that action would have to be taken on illegal, unregulated, untaxed websites.
“The reality is there are apps in these kids’ hands today from overseas companies that are illegal,” he said. “No one has to drive half an hour to make a bet on any Illinois college team.”
In terms of gambling apps, Rep. Daniel Didech, D-Buffalo Grove, agreed that they are prevalent. That’s why he said it is time to have a broader conversation about legalizing and regulating them.
“We’re talking about playing games for money on the internet, against the house, such as blackjack, slots and roulette. And we’re also talking about games for money on the internet against other players such as poker,” he said.
He said the status quo that allows such websites to operate without regulation is “very dangerous.” The websites are predatory and ripe for cheating or other scandals, he said, and they also don’t pay taxes or create jobs in Illinois.
“Money that is deposited into accounts on these illegal websites is not safe,” he said. “It is not uncommon for there to see significant delays in the ability for consumers to cash out their money, and sometimes people never receive their money at all.”
Didech said better regulation would make the practice safer and would only be detrimental to the illegal gambling market.
While advocates said I-gaming entices a different market than those that would go to casinos to gamble, operators of video gambling terminals opposed the measure.
Dan Clausner, executive director of the Illinois Licensed Beverage Association, said internet gambling would discourage Illinoisans from going to local slot machine parlors or restaurants that have video gaming terminals.
Clausner also advocated that the law should make clear that sweepstakes machines are illegal.
The committee’s discussion was subject matter only, meaning no votes were taken on any of the provisions.
Dave McCaffrey, executive director of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, lobbied the committee for changes to the law to benefit the horseracing industry. His group represents employees such as trainers, jockeys and groomers, among others.
In 2006, he said, Illinois had more than 10,000 people licensed to work at racetracks in various positions. But that number has fallen to about 3,800, he said.
While the 2019 gambling bill was designed to help the horse racing industry by allowing tracks to become hybrid casinos, called racinos, it has not been as effective as intended, he said.
“Unfortunately, in the last few years since it passed, no track has opened or even constructed racinos permitted by the 2019 law,” McCaffrey said, noting that the announced closure of the Arlington Park race track has had a negative impact on the industry.
While the 2019 law provided for sports wagering licenses for tracks, it did not dedicate a cut of any revenues from sports gambling to horse racing purses, which largely sustain the industry, he said.
He praised House Bill 3214, sponsored by committee chair Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, which would require the tracks and their partners to dedicate some revenues to horse racing purses and services for the backstretch workers, which make the industry run.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.