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Tribes split over Pawlenty's casino plan
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A few weeks ago, Gov. Tim Pawlenty visited the White Earth reservation, where he was greated by tribal chairwoman Erma Vizenor. Pawlenty is proposing a plan to allow the White Earth and other northern bands to join the state in a casino venture in the Twin Cities. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty is banking on casino money as a way to balance the state's finances. His budget plan, introduced Tuesday, includes a proposed Twin Cities casino that would be run jointly by the state and interested northern Indian tribes. Those northern tribes are pleased with his proposal, but tribes closer to the Twin Cities oppose it.

Bemidji, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty has been trying to get the state's wealthier Indian tribes to share their casino profits. Those efforts have gone nowhere. Now, the governor is proposing a new deal. Interested tribes could become partners in a Twin Cities casino operated jointly with the state.

Tribes would be required to pay a one-time licensing fee of $200 million. After that, the state and tribes would share the profits. Minnesota would get a projected $114 million in casino profits each year. Pawlenty says the plan would bring fairness to Indian gambling in Minnesota.

"As we talk about fairness," Pawlenty said, "we define that not just as what's fair to the state of Minnesota, relative to the growth in the industry, but also what's fair to what's going on in comparable states, and what's fair to the 85 or 90 percent of Native Americans in our state who don't belong to the tribes who are involved in large casino gaming operations in our state."

Eighty-five percent of Indians in Minnesota live in the northern part of the state, on the White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake reservations. The three tribes are pushing legislation similar to Pawlenty's plan. The governor met with those tribal leaders just a few weeks ago, including Erma Vizenor, chair of the White Earth Band. Vizenor says the governor's goals are generally in line with theirs.

"There certainly is momentum," Vizenor said. "When the governor is working on redesigning Indian gaming in the state of Minnesota with a partnership with tribes that represent a majority of Indians in the state, yes. And White Earth is very pleased to be working with the governor's office and looks forward to refining and defining our common goals."

Wealthier tribes around the Twin Cities oppose another Twin Cities casino. They say it would cut into their profits. John McCarthy, director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, describes the governor's plan as a "cynical effort to create disunity among tribes." He says it will transform Minnesota into a "Las Vegas of the north."

What the governor has done, basically, is created an atmosphere of gaming frenzy.
- John McCarthy, Minnesota Indian Gaming Association

"What the governor has done basically is created an atmosphere of gaming frenzy," McCarthy said. "So it isn't just cut and dried and that simple, that you put one casino in and everyone is happy. This is the opening of the door. That's all it is."

McCarthy accuses the governor of breaking a promise that he would not expand gambling in Minnesota. Last year the governor asked the state's Indian tribes to share their casino profits to the tune of $350 million. McCarthy says the governor's only goal is to use tribal resources to fix a state budget crisis.

"What happened to the $350 million that he was trying to extort from the tribes? Where did that go?" said McCarthy. "Now it's a $200 million licensing fee? Of the three tribes that have shown some interest, by their own admission, they're all pretty well strapped for cash. Where are they going to going to come up with a $200 million up-front fee?"

Northern tribal leaders say they're doing what's best for their people. In a recent interview, Red Lake Tribal Secretary Judy Roy said she believes this will be the year the gaming landscape changes. Roy said northern tribes have to be at the table.

"I don't think that anyone begrudges the tribes who have very successful gaming. We applaud them and we're happy for them," said Roy. "So the problem is more of location, and that we will never achieve the kind of financial benefit with our locations and with the sparse populations that we have in northern Minnesota."

Along with profit sharing, the governor's Twin Cities casino plan would have another component. It would establish a separate fund that could one day be used for new sports stadiums, the arts and other community assets. Northern tribal leaders say they'll continue talks with the governor's staff to iron out differences.