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House GOP stakes a lot on gambling vote

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) Here's the choice facing House members in coming weeks: Back a state-run casino at Canterbury Park or trim thousands off state health care programs, slice into funding for higher education and delay aid checks for public schools.

Those stakes are part of a budget resolution approved Wednesday by the House on a 68-66 vote. Republicans, who control the House, pushed through two sets of spending caps - one that relies on a gambling expansion passing and another that balances the budget without more slot machines.

The resolution maps out broad spending targets for each area of the budget. The line-by-line details will be filled in over the next couple of weeks.

The caps go up if a gambling bill is approved, allowing more money to be spent in several areas and discontinuing a budgetary gimmick that forces schools to wait longer to get their aid checks. The Canterbury casino could generate $210 million for the state over the next two years.

The resolution's sponsor, Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, said he wanted to spell out both options in case a casino bill fails.

"I am trying to honestly acknowledge that there is some question whether a gaming proposal is going to pass this body or not," he said.

This isn't just a bad budget. It's a bad budget on steroids.
- Rep. Joe Atkins

But Rep. Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, compared the resolution to a bad episode of the old gameshow, "Let's Make a Deal."

"Behind curtain number one is a real junker of a car. Behind curtain number two is a pig with lipstick on it," Sertich said.

Others raised a recent opinion by Attorney General Mike Hatch that a similar gambling plan put forward by Gov. Tim Pawlenty would be unconstitutional unless voters weighed in through a referendum.

"This isn't just a bad budget. It's a bad budget on steroids. Not only is it unsound, it's illegal," said Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights. "Should we fund the state patrol by robbing 7-Elevens?"

The resolution is complex. It devotes $12.5 billion over two years on schools, about $134 million more than Pawlenty proposed.

If the casino plan fails, schools would get the extra $134 million from continuing an accounting shift that delays the aid payments. If the casino goes through, those profits would cover the school payments and the delay wouldn't occur.

Colleges and those on state-subsidized health insurance have a lot more riding on the gambling vote. Without the racetrack casino, the House would spend $24 million less than Pawlenty has proposed spending on higher education. The resolution proposes the House boost Pawlenty's health care spending by $50 million without a casino, or $70 million with a casino.

The Democratic-controlled Senate has yet to fashion its own budget targets.