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Leech Lake opposes merging casino and racino plans
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Leech Lake tribal chairman George Goggleye says he will oppose any attempt to combine the joint state-tribal casino proposal with a plan to add slot machines to the Canterbury Park race track. "We felt that our partnership with the state granted us exclusivity," he said. (MPR file photo)
The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe says it will reject any attempt to merge a proposed state-tribal casino with a separate plan to put slot machines at the Canterbury Park Racetrack. Both gambling initiatives are stalled at the State Capitol, leading some to suggest merging the two could generate new interest. But Leech Lake officials say they'll oppose any attempt to cut non-Indian partners into a casino deal.

St. Paul, Minn. — It's the latest indication that Gov. Tim Pawlenty's gambling initiative is losing steam. Pawlenty has proposed opening a state-run Twin Cities casino in partnership with three northern Ojibwe bands, as a development tool for their reservations, and as a $200 million revenue bump for the state budget.

But a Senate committee defeated the plan, and House supporters put it on ice while they scramble to find enough votes to ensure passage. One suggestion was to combine the state-tribal partnership with a separate bill authorizing video slot machines at Canterbury Park. Leech Lake tribal chair George Goggleye says his band won't be a party to that.

"We felt that our partnership with the state granted us exclusivity," says Goggleye. "This partnership, if it materializes, it opens the door for just about anybody to open up a gaming operation."

Goggleye says Leech Lake remains interested in working with the state and two other bands -- White Earth and Red Lake -- but that any extension of gambling beyond Native American interests is off-limits.

Representatives of White Earth and Red Lake haven't commented directly on Leech Lake's objections. In the past, however, the White Earth tribal chair indicated an openness to working with the Canterbury proposal.

Pawlenty says he's disappointed that Leech Lake has vetoed any cooperation with Canterbury. But Pawlenty says he's not ready to scrap his push for new gambling revenues.

"There's some prospect that it will pass the House," says Pawlenty. "In fact, I think it's plausible or likely that it will pass the House. And if that happens, then it will be in play between the House and the Senate."

I know I lose votes in that type of merger. I don't know if we gain, and if the gain more than offsets the loss.
- Rep. Mark Buesgens, racino sponsor

It's not clear how merging the proposals would work -- whether a single piece of legislation would authorize two casinos or, perhaps, just one with the revenues split between Canterbury Park, the state and tribal interests.

Rep. Andy Westerberg, R-Blaine, is the chief House sponsor of the state-tribal partnership. He says the gambling debate cuts across so many interests that it's difficult to find consensus.

"The ingredients of coming up with that particular cake are still in the process of being put in the mix," says Westerberg. "And we're not really sure. And it is more complicated now, because it's not just the state of Minnesota and one sovereign nation. It's three separate sovereign nations."

Meanwhile, the state-tribal partnership is languishing in the House Taxes Committee, which has indefinitely postponed gambling hearings that were originally scheduled for last month.

The Canterbury bill is also waiting in the same committee, but the sponsor, Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, says he's optimistic he can scrape together enough votes for his bill. The "racino" plan passed the House in 2003. But Buesgens says merging the two bills, far from increasing the chances of passage, could doom both.

"I know I lose votes in that type of merger. I don't know if we gain, and if the gain more than offsets the loss," says Buesgens. "People who are proposing those kinds of ideas are probably going to have to do that kind of nose-counting."

Buesgens says he, like the Leech Lake officials, would prefer to keep the gambling plans separate and will advise his colleagues to reject any amendments linking the two. But unlike the band, he says if the plans do end up fused, he wouldn't automatically walk away.