Governor Rod Blagojevich's proposal last week to more than double the number of gaming slots at riverboat casinos will require an enormous amount of leadership to become a reality.
Here's the rundown of the pitfalls:
* Almost all gaming bills eventually become giant legislative Christmas trees, and then usually perish because of their gross obesity. The governor said that increasing the number of positions from the current 11,000 to between 23,000 and 24,000 is the only gaming expansion he will agree to this year. It will take a Herculean effort to keep his bill "clean."
* Senate President Emil Jones wants a riverboat for Chicago and, to a slightly lesser extent, another one for the south suburbs. The governor has already nixed those ideas, but if Jones sticks to his guns and the governor refuses to bend, the governor's expansion proposal could die a quick death.
* The governor will use the new money for a $300 million education proposal, but he relies on making permanent a huge riverboat tax increase that was supposed to expire this year.
The boat people said last week that they want the tax hikes repealed in exchange for their support to expand the number of positions, and the legislators who represent the boats will likely back them up. If the governor agrees to rescind the tax increase, then he'll either have to trim his education plan or add even more positions and/or expand gaming somewhere else (or come up with a voodoo economics "lower taxes equals more revenue" projection).
* A spokesperson for the horse racing industry said last week that the governor's proposal would "destroy" the business. So, add another big clump of legislators to the opposition, unless the governor agrees to cut them in.
* A large number of legislators in both parties oppose any gaming expansion whatsoever.
Their existence means the governor will constantly be reminded that he is breaking a campaign pledge not to expand gaming. And their opposition means every other legislative vote is very important, and explains why the support of the existing and prospective boat legislators and the horse people is so crucial. Plus, other members may wonder why the governor wants to make the existing boat owners even wealthier while other communities and politically connected potential owners are kept out of the room.
* Then there's the money itself. The governor's plan would direct the new cash into the school funding formula, which would primarily benefit downstate and Chicago schools. Suburban lawmakers are already voicing their disappointment.
A spokesperson for House Republican Leader Tom Cross said last week that the House Repubs will demand that a large chunk of the money be diverted into mandated categorical programs, which is the principal source of state funding for wealthier school districts.
Cross' spokesman also said the new boat money may be required to patch gaping holes in the state budget. The House Republicans don't believe that Governor Blagojevich's pension reform plan will generate $850 million in the coming fiscal year, as the guv's office claims.
But even if the House Repubs were to agree to the governor's estimates, there's almost no way that many of those proposed reforms will ever be put into place - and every reform that dies creates a new hole in an already precariously balanced (some would say "fantasy based") budget.
* We also have no idea yet whether the $300 million in new riverboat money would actually pay for the governor's plan to significantly toughen graduation standards. If the proffered cash turns out to be a fraction of the real costs of implementing the reforms, then the schools and their army of Statehouse lobbyists will scream about yet another "unfunded mandate," and the whole thing could fade away.
* Putting all this together won't be an easy task, especially considering this governor's tendency to throw public temper tantrums when he doesn't get his way. This gaming idea will be a good test of whether the governor has learned anything about governing during the past two years.
Coming up with more money for schools, however, is a very good political move, because there was no way the General Assembly was adjourning on time if the schools were only going to get $140 million in new money (which translated into almost nothing for the perpetually cash-strapped Chicago publics). At least he understood that problem, which is a good sign.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at capitolfax.blogspot.com.