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Pawlenty reaches casino deal with three northern tribes
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A deal for a casino to be run jointly by the state and three northern tribes will be announced Friday. But its future in the Legislature is still far from certain. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Governor Tim Pawlenty is scheduled to announce a casino partnership with several northern Indian tribes Friday. The deal is expected to reflect the gambling vision Pawlenty outlined in his January budget address. That plan would split proceeds from a new metropolitan casino between the state and participating tribes. But the proposal faces fierce opposition from the state's more successful gambling tribes and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.

St. Paul, Minn. — Bill Haas knows as well as anyone the pitfalls of shepherding a gambling bill through the state Legislature. As a former GOP representative, he carried several versions of a bill to allow three remote northern tribes a chance to break into the lucrative Twin Cities market with an off-reservation metro casino.

Haas now lobbies for those tribes: White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake. This year, Haas says Gov. Pawlenty's active support will add a new boost to the plan.

"That's been accomplished now. The governor's on board with us and wants to support the partnership, so we've come a long way," says Haas. "We've still got a long way to go through the legislative process, but that's what we're here for."

Haas and others declined to discuss details of the plan, but its rough outline includes an upfront licensing fee to be paid by the participating tribes to the state. Originally, Pawlenty set the fee at $200 million, but Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, says that figure may have been negotiated down.

Pappas is the chief Senate sponsor of the bill. She says once the facility is open for business, it should generate more than $100 million a year for the state, with an unspecified amount left for the tribes to divide among themselves. But Pappas says even the lure of new state revenue may not be enough to sway her fellow lawmakers to back the plan.

"It's tough going with just the tribal casino. I don't know that there's the votes to do it. But we will work hard to convince people," Pappas says.

Pappas acknowledges that her fellow Democrats are uneasy about approving a new casino -- and that Republicans prefer slot machines at the Canterbury Park race track rather than a state-tribal partnership.

This is not a get-rich-quick scheme, as much as it is an opportunity for us to do some things with our people that we haven't been able to do with our current gaming structure.
- George Goggleye, Leech Lake Band chairman

Some lawmakers have suggested combining both plans and perhaps authorizing two new metro casinos. Republican Senate Minority Leader Dick Day -- who's been the most vocal advocate for a race track "racino" -- says he'll consider merging the proposals.

"If I have to tack racino on to that bill to get it passed, I'll do that," Day says. "But I don't know if I can hold all my members. So, you know, we're just going to have to play this whole thing out and see how it works. I really don't know."

Day predicts defeat for the state-tribal partnership if it moves without his racino plan. Similar sentiments have been voiced by key House lawmakers as well. That gives ammunition to opponents of new casino sites who fear a slippery slope.

John McCarthy is the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, which represents tribes with more successful casino operations. McCarthy says the governor has started down a path that could double the number of slot machines in Minnesota in short order.

"Bottom line is that this is a domino -- that once these tribes and the governor allow this intrusion, and once this starts, it won't stop," McCarthy says. "The governor can talk about one casino all day, but we all know it's at least two and probably three casinos."

McCarthy says the extra competition will eat into the revenues of existing casinos, and pit tribe against tribe for gaming dollars. But the northern tribes that have struck a deal with Pawlenty say they're already pinched by the existing landscape.

Leech Lake Band chairman George Goggleye says the three northern tribes together represent roughly 80 percent of the state's enrolled Native Americans -- but see a far smaller share of casino profits due to their remote locations.

"This is not a get-rich-quick scheme, as much as it is an opportunity for us to do some things with our people that we haven't been able to do with our current gaming structure or, you know, with our current facilities."

Goggleye and officials from White Earth and Red Lake will join Pawlenty for his Friday announcement and fly-around sales mission to promote the plan in Rochester, Duluth and Moorhead.