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Don't bet on gaming
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The Fond Du Luth Casino was founded as a joint venture of the City of Duluth and the Fond Du Lac Band of Ojibwe. The city has dropped out of the partnership but still earns casino revenue. Some city officials are finding the agreement a double-edged sword. (MPR Photo/Paul Ojanen)
Gov. Pawlenty's plans for new gaming in the Twin Cities have a lot of people worried. The governor's budget counts on a big cash infusion from participating tribes. But there are plenty of Minnesotans opposed to the plan, including some of the people who have experienced the dark underside of gambling first hand.

Duluth, Minn. — Dawn Eisenach knows the problems of gambling too well. She's lived them. Eisenach can't count how much she's lost on pull tabs, but it was sometimes thousands of dollars in a single night; her life savings, piled up in mounds of paper tabs below a bar stool. Now, Eisenach is putting her life back together, but she doesn't like what she's hearing from the Governor.

"The thought of adding casinos to add revenue scares me," says Eisenach. "It really scares me."

Eisenach isn't worried for herself. She believes her gambling and drinking days are behind her. But she knows there's a lot more people like her in Minnesota. She worries about those people who haven't yet been exposed to the lure of pull-tabs, to high stakes bingo, or to the casinos with their cheap booze and flashy slot machines.

"My own personal opinion is the more casinos that there are the higher possibility of someone, if they have that little gene, or have that little addictive personal probability, and they have a win -- they have that big win -- they're caught," Eisenach says.

Some studies of casino patrons say one in five people have problems controlling their gambling. About three percent of the adult population is believed prone to an overpowering gambling addiction. Deni Mendrick falls into that category. Mendrick says she's spent more than $200,000 on bingo and slot machines. It was money she could ill afford to lose. Now, with gambling in her past, she sees how it's permeated society.

"Where ever you go, there's a billboard," Mendrick says. "Every five minutes there's a commercial on TV. You know, you can't walk into a gas station without seeing a lottery ticket - a slew of them. I understand that the gambling creates revenues for these various governments, but at the same time they're also helping to create the compulsive gamblers."

Worse yet, she says, gambling turns otherwise honest people into people who steal, lie, and neglect their families.

Steve Dentinger says the problem is probably bigger than it seems. Dentinger runs a Duluth based gambling program, Gambling Intervention Services. He says good research is in short supply. And he worries when he sees government using gambling profits to pay for government services.

"One of my concerns about it is that I'm not so sure it's the best way a state shall go about funding itself," Dentinger says. "Just like I don't think the state should be in the alcohol distribution or distillation business either. And there are a number of other activities that are probably not the best kinds of things that a state should be in as a government representing the good of all the people."

In Duluth, some city officials are less than comfortable with that city's cozy relationship with gaming. The Fond Du Luth Casino was built as a joint project between the city and the Fond Du Lac tribe of Ojibwe. A few years ago, a the city agreed to drop out of the partnership, but Duluth still gets a sizable cut of casino revenue. City Council member Jim Stauber says it's problematic.

"Now if you ask my philosophy on that government should never have gotten involved in gambling," Stauber says. "Bad deal, bad deal."

Stauber says gambling looks great when you're raking in the bucks. Duluth uses the money for long neglected street and sewer repairs. The city donates a small portion to gambling treatment programs, including Gambling Intervention Services. But Stauber says it just doesn't feel right.

"We're promoting gambling as a government," Stauber says. "And as a government we're trying to intercede and take a proactive approach, telling people don't gamble. I mean, it's nuts."

Friday, Governor Pawlenty unveiled his plan to license a new Twin Cities casino to three northern bands of Ojibwe. The controversial proposal is expected to face an uphill battle in the legislature.