SPRINGFIELD — Senate President John Cullerton floated the idea Tuesday of making Illinois an Internet gambling hub, suggesting the state could organize a major online poker game and gain worldwide popularity.
The Web-based gambling plan comes with little more than two weeks left until a scheduled May 31 adjournment and was rolled out as supporters of expanded casino gambling consider another push.
Cullerton, a North Side Democrat, said in a letter to his fellow legislative leaders and Gov. Pat Quinn that legislation to create a gaming division within the Illinois Lottery would help the state maximize the amount of money it could collect.
"Certain forms of iGaming, especially poker, rely on large pools of potential players, and states that move swiftly to design a system that captures the widest audience of participants will have an advantage in terms of long-range success," Cullerton wrote. The goal is to make the state nimble enough to adjust to new Internet gambling approaches, Cullerton said.
Cullerton wants to pass the Web gambling idea before lawmakers leave town, noting that the U.S. Senate has legislation pending that could preclude Illinois and other states from reaping the benefits if they have not already started when a federal law is put on the books.
But Cullerton's enthusiasm is not universal.
"If you allow Internet poker to be sanctioned by the state of Illinois, there are a whole lot of questions that need to be answered," said Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno of Lemont. "Being first isn't necessarily a good thing."
The state began offering online lottery ticket sales in March, days before an Illinois family from Red Bud near St. Louis bought a winning ticket at a convenience store and took home part of a $656 million jackpot. Through Saturday, Internet sales have generated nearly $1.8 million in Illinois, a lottery spokesman said.
Quinn and his office have maintained that lawmakers must focus on reining in the costs of health care for the poor and public employee pensions. A Quinn spokeswoman would not take a position on the Cullerton plan, saying the administration does not want to be distracted.
Quinn himself has downplayed discussion about moving forward with a gambling package before adjournment as lawmakers struggle with the details of Medicaid and pension reforms.
In the House, Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, said he is preparing to move forward with a proposed expansion of casino gambling that also would add slot machines at racetracks — an idea that Quinn has opposed. Slot machines at tracks were in a previous measure that passed both houses last year. Cullerton never sent the bill to Quinn, who threatened to veto it.
Lang then tried a revamped version last fall, but it came up short. He's thinking of giving that version another go now because discussions with Quinn's office have produced no agreement.
"I cannot even pass a bill if the horse racing industry isn't satisfied that it helps them into the future," Lang said.
In other action, the Senate sent Quinn legislation that would ban the sale of shark fins in Illinois. Proponents of the law said the fins are sometimes used in soups. Sponsoring Sen. Tony Munoz, D-Chicago, compared the idea to a ban on ivory in the late 1980s.