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Pawlenty, tribal leaders unveil casino proposal
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Leech Lake Tribal Chairman George Goggleye, left, and Gov. Pawlenty announced a plan for a state-tribal casino to be located in the Twin Cities metro area. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum )
Gov. Tim Pawlenty toured the state Friday with officials from three Minnesota Indian tribes to pitch a state-tribal partnership for a new casino. Pawlenty and the White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake tribes have agreed to build a metro-area casino that would be among the largest in the state. The announcement has touched off harsh criticism from the state's eight other tribes, and many lawmakers are predicting the plan has little chance of winning legislative approval.

St. Paul, Minn. — The casino plan follows closely Gov. Pawlenty's January pitch to balance the state's budget in part with new gambling revenue. The three tribes would pay a $200 million licensing fee to the state. Once the project's up and running, the state would capture about one-third of the casino's gambling revenue -- an estimated $164 million each year.

Pawlenty says it's "delusional" to say gambling isn't already growing in Minnesota. He says the question is whether the state and its partner tribes will benefit from the boom.

"It is time that Minnesota and the tribal governments who are represented as part of this partnership get a better deal, get a more fair deal," Pawlenty says.

"Fairness, of course, is defined as making sure that the monies that are going to be generated by the gaming industry in Minnesota do not just flow to a small group of individuals or governments, but that they are distributed in a fair and appropriate manner," says Pawlenty.

White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake together account for roughly 80 percent of the state's enrolled Native American population. But tribal officials say their remote locations have shut them out of the lucrative Twin Cities market, while smaller tribes reap large windfalls.

The new casino would provide almost $400 million a year, to be divided between the three tribes and to pay for operating expenses.

Leech Lake tribal chair George Goggleye says those resources would help address housing, infrastructure and health care needs on his reservation.

"If I don't, as a tribal leader, prepare in some way, shape or form for the future of my children and my grandchildren, I'm not doing my job as a leader," Goggleye says. "That's the pledge that I made, and that's the oath of office that I'm going to honor."

One would think the only thing we talk about in this state is gambling. I think we're a better state than to have an agenda that revolves around gambling.
- DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson

But the state's other Indian tribes have pledged to block the casino plan. Kevin Leecy, chairman of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, says his reservation, too, is located in far northern Minnesota -- but that its Fortune Bay resort has succeeded thanks to shrewd management.

Leecy says 80 percent of his casino's business comes from the Twin Cities. And he says a new casino would cut into that customer base.

"Sometimes we want to take the easy way out. And to build a casino in the Twin Cities area, you know, I think it just separates and divides Indian nations. And it's a sad day for Indian Country when that happens," Leecy says.

The tribes that already own casinos near the Twin Cities say a new casino would trample their own markets and damage their ability to provide for their people.

"I'm very disappointed," said Doreen Hagen, president of the Prairie Island Indian Community, which owns Treasure Island Resort and Casino near Red Wing. "The governor continues to try to divide the tribes. This has been done for centuries, and history's repeating itself."

The governor's plan envisions a casino with 4,000 slot machines -- roughly the size of the Shakopee Mdewanketon's Mystic Lake. The new casino could also offer craps and roulette, which are currently not available in Minnesota. No site was specified -- and Pawlenty says the state and the tribes will search for a willing host community.

The plan still faces steep odds. Leaders in the House and Senate acknowledge strong resistance to expanding gambling, or to using gambling revenue to pay for basic state services. DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson says the opposition is bipartisan.

"The left has joined with the right, and the right has joined with the left and all of us in the middle. And I do not see 34 votes for this" in the State Senate, says Johnson.

Some Republican lawmakers, however, say the deal could be sweetened if the state-tribal casino is merged with a proposal to install slot machines at the Canterbury Park Racetrack. Pawlenty says that's not currently part of his proposal, but that it could be incorporated if necessary.

Opposing tribes say that shows the potential for an unchecked expansion of gambling. John McCarthy of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association says it's not clear the Minnesota Lottery has the authority to operate slot machines, as the state-tribal deal would require.

"That has been in the can for the last four years. There's no doubt that the tribes have maintained from the start of all this that there may be a real serious question with the constitutionality of this issue," McCarthy says.

If Pawlenty and the partner tribes do prevail, the gambling revenues could flow quickly. The governor's office estimates a temporary casino could open within six months -- with a permanent hotel and entertainment complex to follow in two years.

Johnson predicted the gambling fight would distract the Legislature from more important matters.

"One would think the only thing we talk about in this state is gambling," Johnson said. "Gambling, gambling, gambling. I think we're a better state than to have an agenda that revolves around gambling."

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)