SPRINGFIELD — — Illinois lawmakers approved an 11th-hour extension to an online betting law on Wednesday that will allow horse racing tracks to keep their racing schedules intact this year.
The measure passed the Senate 47-4 just moments after lawmakers officially reconvened for the year to hear Gov. Pat Quinn's annual State of the State address, a day that customarily entails little else. The House voted 98-10 a short time later, and Quinn signed the bill Wednesday afternoon.
The legislation allowing online betting had been set to expire Friday. The Illinois Racing Board had predicted major budget cuts without an extension, because money from the online betting composes about a third of its annual budget. That could have limited their oversight ability and forced racetracks to cut the number of horse races.
The three-year extension includes a surcharge on wagering.
Racing board officials and representatives from the state's racetracks have spent months lobbying lawmakers. Officials said Wednesday they were pleased with the legislation's passage, noting it will help preserve the jobs of the estimated 15,000 horse owners, trainers, jockeys and stable-hands in Illinois.
"With his signature many people can plan on going back to work knowing that there will be a full racing schedule in Illinois, not only for 2014, but for the next several years as well," Arlington Park General Manager Tony Petrillo said.
But Petrillo acknowledged that "there's still a lot more work that needs to be done to rebuild racing," pinning the long-term future of the industry on allowing slot machines at racetracks, in order to compete with Illinois casinos and out-of-state tracks that allow slots.
Rep. Bob Rita, a Blue Island Democrat, began a series of hearings this week around the state on gambling expansion legislation, hoping he can bridge regional divides. A bill last May fizzled in the Legislature.