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Casino bills get first hearing
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The proposals for the Canterbury Park racino and slots in bars have made the legislative rounds in past years, but are enjoying renewed interest as Pawlenty and lawmakers look for ways to add spending on K-12 education and other priorities without raising taxes. (Photo by Christopher Furlong /Getty Images)
From a new Twin Cities casino to slot machines in bars statewide, a key House committee has begun its work sorting through this year's proposed gambling initiatives. There's new emphasis on generating state revenue through gambling due in part to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's support for a state-tribal partnership that would open a new casino in the metropolitan area. But the line-up of competing proposals has led opponents to argue that approving anything would only open the door to an unchecked expansion of gambling.

St. Paul, Minn. — For years, several Ojibwe tribes in remote northern Minnesota have been lobbying for a chance to break into the lucrative Twin Cities market with an off-reservation casino to be run jointly with the state lottery. That plan's begun its legislative journey anew in the Gaming subdivision of the House Regulated Industries Committee, and this year it has a powerful new ally in Gov. Pawlenty.

Pawlenty Chief of Staff Dan McElroy told the committee the plan would benefit the three struggling tribes that have signed on as well as pump more than $120 million a year into the state's treasury.

"We simply hope -- think -- we have a good case. And that the vast majority of Minnesotans support the governor's proposal and we have a good chance to sell it. The governor has said many times when you have an idea that's logical and the people support it, eventually democracy works," he said.

McElroy outlined the plan's key elements, including an upfront $200 million licensing fee that the tribes would pay to the state. The bill doesn't propose a specific site for the facility, which is expected to contain 4,000 video slot machines. But it does allow local elected officials to reject a casino in their communities.

Also up for consideration is a separate plan to create a so-called "racino" by installing 3,000 slot machines at the Canterbury Park racetrack in Shakopee. The racino plan would also authorize a second casino for a harness racing track under development in Anoka County once that facility is up and running for five years.

Republican Representative Mark Buesgens of Jordan says despite the potential for two new casinos embedded in his legislation, he doesn't think a racino bill amounts to a major expansion of gambling.

"The proposal I bring forward is a proposal to put a casino in a building already built for gambling, all right? And so we're not putting it on any other location. Even if a harness track five years from now were to get a license, that'd still be in a building that the state approved for gambling," according to Buesgens.

The racino plan passed the House in 2003. It's estimated to produce almost $100 million a year for the state's general fund. That's less than the governor's proposal. The biggest money maker by far is a proposal to authorize up to five slot machines a piece in thousands of bars and taverns across the state.

Supporters of that plan say it could generate more than three times what the racino or the governor's plan could individually do.

DFL Representative Tom Rukavina of Virginia is chief sponsor of the "slots-in-bars" plan.

"If we are going down this path of gambling to raise money for our budget. And I, for one, don't know if that's right or not. But if we are -- and it seems we are -- I think this is the plan to look at. I think this brings in the most amount of money. It helps the greatest amount of people and hurts the least amount of people," he said.

The committee isn't expected to take action on the gambling initiatives until Friday evening, but opponents say the deck seems stacked in favor of new casinos.

The committee's five Republican members all voted for the racino plan when it passed the House floor in 2003. The four DFLers opposed it. That, says John McCarthy, suggests the committee was structured to ensure an easy start out of the gates this time around.

McCarthy represents the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, which opposes news casino sites. MIGA argues that new gambling venues will eat into the business of existing Indian casinos, and McCarthy says the governor's endorsement of one initiative has fed the appetite for other gambling plans.

"Boy, he's going to more than double the number of machines by promoting these proposals. And if the slots-in-the-bars were to pass, my God, you'd probably quadruple the number of machines. So all of a sudden, Minnesota has more machines than Atlantic City. Probably more machines than Las Vegas. In one legislative session," he said.

Pawlenty has said he'd support the racino plan in addition to his state-tribal partnership. He's also said he has reservations about slots-in-bars.

But chief of staff McElroy didn't rule it out.