St. Paul, Minn. — Of the state's eleven recognized tribes, only White Earth and Leech Lake were both willing and able to participate in the closed door discussion. Two other tribes refused - and the remaining seven cited scheduling difficulties that prevented attendance.
But the two tribes present were noteworthy: they've pushed recently, together with a third tribe, Red Lake, to open a jointly-operated state-tribal casino in the metropolitan area. The three tribes cite their remote northern locations as a barrier to the lucrative gambling market. And they argue that opening a new casino in the Twin Cities area would help boost their revenues. Leech Lake chair George Goggleye says Governor Pawlenty seemed receptive to a partnership that would benefit all participants.
"The governor was open to listening to us, what our concerns are," said Goggleye. "And I think that's opened the door. And like I said, I feel very positive. And I think we're going to make some progress."
In a letter earlier this month, Pawlenty asked the tribal leaders to consider sharing one quarter of their net revenues with the state. By the governor's estimates, that would bring $350 million a year to state coffers, compared to virtually nothing under current arrangements. Greater revenue-sharing has been roundly rejected by Native American leaders.
White Earth and Leech Lake, too, say whatever revenues they generate directly support tribal government, education, and other social services and can't be spared for state needs. But they say if the state would authorize a joint venture in the more lucrative metro area, then there would be more to go around.
Pawlenty says he understands that any agreement must benefit the tribes and the state. He says that's why he's willing to offer concessions to tribes which could include an extended ban on outside competition and new locations.
"And the benefit to them is exclusivity -- continued exclusivity," said Pawlenty, "the potential for more revenues through some combination of either new technology, more games, or new sites. And we did not rule out the possibility of at least a limited number of sites as a concept."
I don't think that that signals anything more than the attempt on the part of the governor to divide and conquer the tribes.
While that provides new hope to the northern tribes, past estimates for a state-tribal casino suggest it would bring in less than half of the $350 million Pawlenty has identified as a fair share for the state. Pawlenty says he hopes he can interest other tribes in joining future discussions - but that he's prepared to strike a deal with whomever appears at the table.
"I don't think that that signals anything more than the attempt on the part of the governor to divide and conquer the tribes, with the real goal being to set the table to suggest that, well, these tribes aren't able to do it," said John McCarthy, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association. Most of MIGA's members oppose the northern tribes' plan, arguing it would siphon business from established casinos in the metro area.
McCarthy says he believes Pawlenty's ultimate goal is to open the door for Las Vegas casino interests to enter Minnesota. In fact, the governor's chief of staff met recently with prominent casino operators in Nevada. But White Earth chair Erma Vizenor says MIGA's objections won't stop the northern tribes coalition from pushing for the new Twin Cities location.
"Specifically on gaming, I think we have our differences," said Vizenor. "And I respect those differences. As tribal leaders we respect their position. But I represent the people of White Earth, and I'm going to act in the best interest of White Earth."
Vizenor says she's invited Pawlenty to visit White Earth and to continue discussions. And Pawlenty says he'll take the offer.