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Tribe offers to talk about sharing casino revenue
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The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe has offered to talk with state officials about sharing some of its casino profits with the state. Gov. Pawlenty and some state lawmakers have said they want to reopen the compacts governing Indian gambling, but the tribes have opposed that move. (MPR file photo)
Leaders with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe say they might be willing to share some of their future gambling revenue with the state. The band wants to explore cooperative business ventures that could result in gaming money flowing into state coffers. Both state and tribal leaders hope this represents a new beginning, one that could soften the debate over Indian gaming before the next legislative session starts.

St. Paul, Minn. — Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin has a proposal for Gov. Pawlenty and the state's top lawmakers. wants the two sides to sit down and talk about gambling, something she says they haven't done properly.

"We haven't really actually set a series of meetings where we could talk about opportunities, in a sense, and I think it's time that we do that," she says.

Benjamin has sent a letter to state leaders outlining several proposals.

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After years of disagreement between the state and the band over casino revenues, the measures appear to be the band's effort to take some control of the debate. Benjamin says she was speaking only for her own tribe and not the 10 other sovereign tribes, some of whom have been reluctant to enter talks over profit sharing.

Benjamin says the Mille Lacs Band already gives the state something, by employing 3,000 people in central Minnesota. Most of them are not tribal members.

Among the possible discussion points:

-Seek a business relationship with the Twins or Vikings in which the tribe could help pay for construction of a new stadium or two.

-Forge new compacts with the state allowing the tribe to have more games and simulcast horse racing at the Grand Casino Hinckley and Grand Casino Mille Lacs.

Because of the growing political pressure to expand gaming and the seeming stalemate between the tribes and the state, now is the time for a new course.
- Melanie Benjamin, Mille Lacs Band

-Provide legal support to the state if it would challenge the federal government's prohibition of sports betting, which some have said could be taxed if regulated.

-Establish a charitable foundation using band funds to support charitable organizations, local governments or other tribes.

Benjamin says the band makes charitable donations, but she says they'd like to do more. The band wants to set up an endowment, funded by gambling revenue, that would provide grants to communities on and off the reservation.

"If we set up a foundation, and have an established amount we're going to fund this with, and an established endowment, then we can have that for years to come," says Benjamin.

Another proposal is to set up a business partnership between the band and the Twins and Vikings. While still short on details, Benjamin says it's a deal that could fund a new stadium in Minnesota, and provide the band with more revenue.

She also says if the band were allowed to expand their gaming through simulcast horse racing or sports betting, some of that money could go to the state.

Gov. Pawlenty says the proposals are a good start and may lead to productive talks over gambling.

"We're pleased with chief executive Benjamin's letter. We're certainly going to explore that in good faith and give it every chance to succeed, and if it doesn't then we're going to keep other options open," Pawlenty says.

Those other options, according to Pawlenty, are to continue working on changes in state law that would allow the establishment of non-Indian casinos. The tribes have opposed that change, saying such a move would cut their gaming profits by up to 40 percent.

Pawlenty says tribes could be allowed to keep exclusive rights to gambling in Minnesota, "but in exchange for that, they would make a significant contribution to the state of Minnesota that would mirror the relationship that most of other states have with their tribal communities," he says.

Minnesota's agreement with its Indian tribes, negotiated in the late 1980s, is different than other states. The gaming compacts approved with Minnesota's 11 tribes allow them to keep all their casino profits.

Mille Lacs Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin says even with this new effort to talk about gaming, those compacts are non-negotiable.

John McCarthy, the head of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, says the state's other tribes hold the same tight grip on their compacts. He says the proposals from the Mille Lacs Band represent an effort to have a fair discussion of the issues, but they're really not new ideas.

"The tribes have always been willing -- on a government-to-government level, and in an atmosphere of respect and true negotiation -- to talk with the state about partnerships, about ways that we can benefit each other," McCarthy says. "This has not been the approach the state has taken. They have always come at it from a standpoint of a gun to the head, 'You will do this, we will do that.'"

McCarthy hopes the Mille Lacs band's proposals will change how that process works.

The state and the Mille Lacs Band say they'll hold discussions this fall before the next legislative session begins. And while both sides agree they're off to a good start, the divisions in place are still so deep, that a satisfactory outcome is far from certain.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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