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Senate deals blow to gambling plans
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Erma Vizenor, chair of White Earth, nevertheless expressed disappointment at the committee votes. "We will forge on and work hard throughout the session to have our bill passed." (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
Plans to expand gambling options in Minnesota have hit a snag in the Senate. Last night, a Senate committee voted down a proposal to open a state-run casino in partnership with three northern Ojibwe tribes. The same committee also rejected a separate plan to authorize slot machines at the Canterbury Park Racetrack in Shakopee. In each case, the opposition was bipartisan. Supporters of the bills, however, say they remain alive in the House -- but even that front looks shaky.

St. Paul, Minn. — When Gov. Tim Pawlenty first proposed a state-tribal partnership in his January budget address, he made clear that a new casino would be a key revenue source for the state. The governor's chief of staff, Dan McElroy, says that the Senate Agriculture, Veterans and Gaming Committee's 10-to-4 vote against the proposal would therefore need to be made up elsewhere.

"This vote was a preference by some for raising taxes rather than allowing Minnesotans another opportunity for gaming," he said. "This was a vote about not helping the poorest Minnesota Indians, to protect a monopoly for the richest Minnesota Indians who have been generous political contributors. This is a sad day."

Without the anticipated casino revenue, Pawlenty's budget is $200 million short. Although McElroy says that money wasn't tied to anything in particular, a majority of the governor's requested new spending was targeted towards education.

A separate bill to install video slot machines at Canterbury Park was amended to explicitly link that's project's $200 million in expected revenues to funding schools. Even so, the committee voted -- by the same margin -- to reject a so-called "racino."

"That's far, far short of what this Legislature ought to provide for public education," said DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson. "Second of all, we should never, ever, ever fund our schools with gambling proceeds. Never, ever, ever."

Johnson and others also rejected an amendment that would have funneled most of the state's portion of the racino money to the same three Indian bands who had teamed up for the governor's plan: Red Lake, White Earth and Leech Lake. Those three account for roughly 85 percent of Minnesota's enrolled Native American population. They say they've largely missed the economic benefits of Indian gambling because they're remote locations have stranded them far from the lucrative Twin Cities market.

But the state's other eight tribes vigorously oppose a new metro casino, arguing it would draw customers away from their own tribal casinos.

We should never, ever, ever fund our schools with gambling proceeds. Never, ever, ever.
- Sen. Dean Johnson

Doreen Hagen, the council president for the Prairie Island Community, which owns the Treasure Island casino near Red Wing, says she doubts the governor or other supporters of the gambling bills truly have the needs of the three northern tribes at heart.

"Why now does the Legislature think about them? Why didn't they think about that ten years ago, twenty years ago that they've been poor? Why didn't they come then? Why now? You have to think about that," she said.

Hagen argues that Pawlenty and others are simply using the three northern tribes as cover to extract state revenue from Indian gambling.

But Erma Vizenor, chair of White Earth, nevertheless expressed disappointment at the committee votes. "We will forge on and work hard throughout the session to have our bill passed."

Vizenor and other backers say they'll now look to the House, where the same bills have survived two committee votes and are now before the House Taxes Committee. But that stop may provide new challenges. At least three of the committee's Republican members -- including the chair -- are already on the record voting against the racino plan two years ago.

The tax committee was meant to take up the gambling plans later on Tuesday, but at the request of the bills' suppporters, the committee postponed action. Opponents say that's a clear sign the bills don't have enough support to pass the tax committee.

Republican Andy Westerberg of Blaine says that's not the reason for the delay. But Westerberg, who's the chief House sponsor of the state-tribal partnership, acknowledges he's still trying to secure support.

"It's just a matter of we're trying to work through any problems that might exist with certain people," he said.

If the bills were to stall in the House Taxes Committee, it would be a major setback for the governor and his allies. But they say that even then they'll fight to resurrect the matter.

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