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Pawlenty gambles with proposals for casino revenue
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Gov. Tim Pawlenty is proposing state-sponsored gambling as one way of convincing Minnesota's Indian tribes to share their gambling profits with the state. Some Republicans are not happy with his support of expanded gambling. (MPR file photo)
Some members of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's own party say he's wrong to explore using casino gambling money to help fund state government. They say the governor's approach conflicts with fundamental Republican Party principles and it will cost the GOP votes. Pawlenty is not backing down from trying to pressure tribes into sharing their casino profits.

St. Paul, Minn. — Anti-gambling language has long been a part of the GOP platform. Conservative Republicans say no matter how grim the state's financial outlook, casino money should not be part of the solution.

"I'm one of the people that believes that state government should always take the moral high ground," said former GOP state representative and gubernatorial candidate Allen Quist. Quist said the governor's focus on gambling is alienating a powerful group of Minnesota Republicans.

"Now you have the top Republican leaders promoting gambling -- at least as a bargaining chip if for no other reason -- and so they're operating contrary to the position of the party, and there's a price to be paid for that," said Quist.

Gov. Pawlenty insists he does not want to expand gambling, and that he's suggesting a state-sponsored casino because he thinks it's the only way to bring the tribes to the table.

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Image David Strom

"We just got to the point where we needed to get to a more serious discussion, and just hoping that it would happen wasn't making progress. So we did have to elevate this in the public's attention -- and now we've got everybody's attention," Pawlenty explained. "Some people don't like it, but that's the nature of trying to resolve tough public issues."

As for the notion casino revenue should be not used to help bankroll state government, Pawlenty said that's unrealistic.

"The industry is growing rapidly. It's not a question of putting our heads in the sand and pretending that gaming doesn't exist," said Pawlenty.

If Pawlenty is serious about not wanting to expand gambling, and instead wants to negotiate a revenue-sharing deal, some observers who are normally big fans of the governor are puzzled over the way Pawlenty has handled the talks.

David Strom heads up the Taxpayers League of Minnesota -- the group behind the "No New Taxes Pledge," which Pawlenty and many other Republicans signed and campaigned on heavily.

Strom said rather than looking to tribes for state revenue and talking about a state casino, Pawlenty should focus on reducing the cost of government.

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Image Annette Meeks

"If they're trying to negotiate revenue from the tribes, that clearly has not been a successful strategy," Strom said. "They seem to have taken a 'Scream loudly and carry a big stick' negotiating strategy, and the reaction of the Indian tribes has been to walk the other direction. We can't negotiate with people who just threaten. If what they're trying to do is set up the predicate for opening up a new casino, they're going to open up a huge can of worms."

"We attempted to have discussions with them over the summer and fall, and those really didn't go anywhere," Pawlenty responded. "So we realized that if we were going to have them take us more seriously, that we were going to have to put more specific proposals or demands forward."

Campaign commercials for Republican legislative candidates this fall featured the governor calling for revenue sharing, and the ads infuriated tribes which run successful casinos.

Allen Quist said the ads also angered a critical wing of Pawlenty's Republican base, and Quist is convinced the gambling issue cost Republicans seats in the Legislature this fall.

"I know how the evangelical community reacted to that. 'What? We're supposed to be angry that Democrats won't insist on a take of the gambling money?' It's the next thing to blood money," said Quist. "The Republicans, I'm convinced, lost so many House seats in part -- certainly not totally -- but in part, by trying to use the gambling issue against Democrats. And it obviously backfired bigtime, and the Republican leadership hasn't figured that out."

But Pawlenty does not apologize for the ads.

"The radio ad simply said my position, which is, a lot of money is generated by this industry. It's been growing rapidly, and it's time for Minnesota to get a more fair deal from these casino operations. That doesn't say anything differently than I've been saying for months," Pawlenty insisted.

A Republican Party that discourages evangelicals will not win. It will be a minority party pure and simple, and it needs to figure that out.
- Allen Quist

Pawlenty notes Minnesota tribes with profitable casinos have funneled millions of dollars into state politics.

This year alone, according Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure board records, tribal political action committees have given more than $435,000 to candidates and groups. Almost all of the money went to Democrats.

The Taxpayers League has also received contributions from people affiliated with tribal gambling.

Palwenty also said opponents of his approach -- to force tribes to share gambling revenue with the threat of competition -- incorrectly state the alternative he's proposing is a state-run casino.

"We wouldn't have the state get into Las Vegas-styled gambling. I know that's the phrase people like to use," said Pawlenty. "If we did get a competitor in gaming, we would just look to, probably, another tribal community to operate a casino. The state wouldn't operate it. We might license it and enter into a financial partnership, but we wouldn't operate it and run it directly."

Pawlenty insists he has not changed his position on gambling. But when he ran for governor two years ago, he campaigned against proposals to expand gambling.

Five months into his first year as governor, Pawlenty had this to say about a state-sponsored casino in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio.

"It's not a proper function of government, to be running and owning and profiting from gambling operations. That's not really part of our Constitution, or the vision that our founding fathers had for our state."

Annette Meeks, one of several vice chairs of the state Republican Party, said the governor's proposal took many Republicans by surprise.

"I think perhaps there's some strategery (sic), as our president might say, that needs to be re-examined," Meeks said.

Meeks acknowledged Pawlenty's talk about gambling has caused concern, but she said she doesn't think it will split the party.

"The most important thing he did after he was elected is he kept his word and he didn't raise taxes. He's governed as a conservative -- the only conservative governor that we've had in my lifetime. So there is a fair amount of -- no, a significant amount of -- goodwill towards this governor from the rank-and-file Republicans."

But Allen Quist sees the situation as more serious for the GOP. And Quist said it's not just Pawlenty's future that's at stake at the next election.

"A really big question is who's going to vote, and who's going to think it's worth doing? Who's going to be motivated, and who isn't? And who's going to do the work? Who's going to do the ground game?" Quist asked. "A Republican Party that discourages evangelicals will not win. It will be a minority party pure and simple, and it needs to figure that out."

Despite strained relations with the Minnesota's wealthiest tribes, Gov. Pawlenty says he's hopeful a deal can be reached. The governor remains adamant that to get the tribes to share their gambling revenue, he'll have to continue moving ahead with his controversial exploration of a state-sponsored casino.

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