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Tribal head says casinos must share wealth with other tribes; more gambling opposition surfaces at Capitol
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Gov. Tim Pawlenty's effort to convince wealthier tribes to share existing gambling revenue in exchange for continued casino exclusivity has gone nowhere. (MPR file photo)
The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe is holding firm on its stand not to share casino revenues with the state. Mille Lacs' tribal chair Melanie Benjamin gave her State of the Band address on Tuesday, praising the band for protecting its "economic livelihood" from Gov. Pawlenty and the Legislature. But Benjamin made another announcement that still keeps the band involved in the casino profit-sharing debate. The address came on a day the gambling issue resurfaced at the Capitol.

Vineland, Minn. — Melanie Benjamin wants to continue a conversation she had with Gov. Pawlenty, she just doesn't want to continue it with him.

In August, she wrote the governor a letter, offering a few proposals for how the band could make economic contributions to the state. Since then, her relations with the governor have soured. But Benjamin still wants to pursue some of the ideas she had floated with him, including the idea of a charitable foundation. In her "State of the Band" address, Benjamin elaborated the concept.

"I have sent a proposal to the Band Assembly that outlines a plan to partner with other metro-area tribes to create a foundation. The purpose of the foundation would be to provide grants to those Lakota and Ojibwe tribes in rural Minnesota whose people are not doing as well as some of us," she said.

Benjamin's announcement comes about a week after some of those less-prosperous tribes met with Gov. Pawlenty to talk about a plan that could benefit both parties.

ABOUT THE DEAL

The deal would allow the White Earth, Leech Lake, and Red Lake tribes to build a casino outside their reservations -- in the more lucrative metro area. And in return, the state would get a cut of the profits.

We want to earn our own revenue. We don't to take what we regard as charity from other tribes.
- Erma Vizenor, chief of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe

So the Mille Lacs Band's announcement raises a question: Is the band offering financial assistance to the northern tribes in order to thwart their deal with the state?

"Absolutely. It isn't even a suspicion. I'd say it is the reason," says Erma Vizenor, chief of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, one of the tribes that met with Gov. Pawlenty. Vizenor says she's not enthused about the Mille Lacs Band's plan to lend a hand.

"We want to earn our own revenue. We don't to take what we regard as charity from other tribes," she said.

But Mille Lacs Band spokesman Tadd Johnson says the band isn't trying to undermine the northern tribes' deal with the governor. He says it's not a question of being critical of other tribes' possible partnership with the state. He says each tribe will meet its needs as it sees fit.

"These are elected officials like any other type of elected officials," Johnson said. "There are alliances that form and differences that form. They recognize there are things they're going to have to work on together and things to work on separately. I think as elected officials they all recognize they're going to do the best they can for their constituencies."

Though the Mille Lacs Band has plans to donate to other tribes, it's stepping up efforts to help its own members. The band is making plans to build more schools and houses, and increase the share of revenue profits that each member receives.

CAPITOL DEBATE BEGINS

Benjamin's address came on a day in which the gambling landscape appeared to shift at the Legislature. A coalition of anti-gambling groups has re-emerged in response to Gov. Pawlenty's recent overtures to the tribes.

Citizens Against Gambling Expansion -- CAGE -- includes religious leaders and conservative think-tanks who oppose increasing the availability of casino gambling.

It's not often that the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition joins forces with the Taxpayers League. But they've revived the CAGE alliance first created during earlier gambling debates. They're calling for a halt to any new casino proposals. Brian Rusche, the executive director of the religious coalition, says gambling creates more problems than it solves.

"It necessitates more losers than winners. It produces nothing of value. It creates no new wealth. So from a faith perspective, it's corrupt. It's empty. We should not go down this road," he said.

Rusche cited studies that show gambling increases the incidence of divorce, bankruptcy, child abuse, and violent crime.

THE PROOF IS IN THE POVERTY

But supporters of a new casino to benefit three poor northern tribes say the corrosive effects of poverty are just as devastating. The White Earth, Red Lake, and Leech Lake bands of Ojibwe comprise roughly 85 percent of the state's Native American population. But the tribes argue that their remote reservations are cut off from the lucrative Twin Cities market, limiting the value of their current casino ventures.

Erma Vizenor of the White Earth Tribal Council says authorizing a Twin Cities location for the three northern tribes simply levels the playing field.

"We have people who have health needs, necessary surgery. We have children who go to school without proper clothing in the winter time. And we have families who can't afford to pay heating bills and living in inadequate homes," says Vizenor. "Now, you tell me if there's not something immoral about that. Where are all the moralists when we have these problems?"

The plan would also divert roughly $90 million a year into state coffers, an enticing prospect for some who worry about the state's tight budget.

But the proposal is strenuously opposed by the state's eight other tribes, who argue that a new casino would siphon revenue from their existing facilities. Those tribes have donated money to the Taxpayers League.

AND IN THIS CORNER....

In the other corner, however, is Gov. Pawlenty. Pawlenty, last year, suggested rearranging the casino system and negotiation a share of the revenues for state use. Currently, the tribes pay virtually nothing to the state from casino operations. Pawlenty has recently talked more directly about the plight of the northern tribes and visited White Earth last week.

Spokesman Brian McClung says the governor is committed to a fair distribution of gambling money, and he says CAGE is "misguided" if it ignores the ongoing growth in Native American operations.

"Gambling is expanding by the hour in Minnesota," he said. "And the only real question is whether or not the 85 percent of tribal members who do not currently benefit and the rest of the state of Minnesota are going to have some benefits from that."

Although gambling measures have gained momentum in recent years, no particular one has yet gathered enough steam to become law.

And one of the state's longest, most vocal advocates for tapping gambling money says he's not ready to back the governor's plan. Republican Senate Minority Leader Dick Day of Owatonna says he'd rather see the state authorize slot machines at the Canterbury Park racetrack than join forces with Native American tribes. Day says if Pawlenty comes out in favor of a state-tribal partnership, the two will "duke it out."

"If he does that, I'm going to tell you what -- he is going down a slippery slope that probably a good majority of my people here won't even vote for it. So, he will have to team up with Democrats to get that passed," according to Day.

Democrats, who have also received substantial contributions from the state's more successful Indian tribes, have traditionally been opposed to new gambling proposals. But that state-tribal partnership may be more palatable. This year, as in years past, the chief Senate author will be a DFLer.

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