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Gambling bills pass committee test
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Rep. Andy Westerberg is chief author of the governor's gambling proposal and chair of the committee that approved it Friday night. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
Two proposals for new gambling venues have passed their first legislative hurdle. On Friday night, the House Gaming Division gave the nod to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's plan for a state-tribal partnership that would operate a Twin Cities casino. It also advanced a plan to open put slot machines at the Canterbury Park racetrack in Shakopee. Opponents say either proposal could lead to an unchecked explosion of gambling in the state.

St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty's plan is designed to generate millions of dollars in new revenue both for the state and three northern Ojibwe tribes who've long sought to break into the lucrative Twin Cities casino market.

George Goggley, the chair of the Leech Lake band, which has joined with Red Lake and White Earth in the proposed state-tribal partnership, says the committee vote gives new momentum to their efforts.

"I know this is just one of the first in many steps that, you know, that we're going to have to go through. But, it gives us some hope, and it's inspiring. And some higher level of optimism exists," he said.

The plan requires an upfront $200 million licensing fee from the tribes to the state and envisions a facility with 4,000 slot machines, generating more than $120 million for the state's general fund and almost three times that amount for the tribes.

The proposal is fiercely opposed by the state's other Native American tribes.

We've sunk to the level where we're going to have to fund K-12 and higher education with gambling money.
- Rep. Tom Huntley

"It's difficult for us to accept being lectured to by others about fairness," said Doreen Hagen, the president of the Prairie Island Community that owns the Treasure Island casino in Red Wing. "While we respect the right of every tribe to try to improve their situation, we don't think these improvements should come at the expense of other tribes."

Hagen also opposes a separate plan to authorize 3,000 slot machines at Canterbury Park. That would require a $100 million upfront fee and generate a similar amount each year for the state.

Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, is the chief sponsor. While a so-called racino plan passed the House two years ago, an election has brought in a new crop of lawmakers. Buesgens says he'll need to get bipartisan support to re-pass the measure.

"I think it's important that any major piece of legislation have support from both sides of the aisle. And I'm going to work and proceed in that way, that I have to get votes from both sides of the aisle," he said.

But during the hearing, committee members split on precise party lines for a series of DFL amendments that were defeated by Republicans who support of the bill.

Democrat Tom Huntley of Duluth criticized the GOP strategy as an attempt to balance a budget shortfall with gambling dollars.

"We've sunk to the level where we're going to have to fund K-12 and higher education with gambling money. That's where we've come to," he said.

Both plans also face significant opposition in the DFL-controlled Senate. A third proposal to allow slot machines in thousands of bars across the state was shelved and appears unlikely to return this year.