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Gov's casino plan takes another blow at Legislature
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The bill would set up one casino to be operated by the racetrack and another to be run by the state and American Indian tribes. Three bands - Red Lake, Leech Lake and White Earth - originally had joined in Pawlenty's proposal for a joint metro casino, but both Red Lake and Leech Lake have dropped out since the Shakopee horse track was brought into the picture. (File photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
Things are looking bad for the Pawlenty gambling proposal. Just last week, Gov. Pawlenty and House Republicans crafted a compromise meant to keep gambling revenues on the table for end-of-session budget negotiations. But on Tuesday opponents used a parliamentary maneuver to reroute the legislation and send it to a potentially hostile committee where its fate remains uncertain.

St. Paul, Minn. — The House Taxes Committee is considered something of a black hole for gambling bills. Already this year two casino bills have landed there only to languish for lack of support among committee members.

To restart the casino debate, House Republican leaders and Governor Tim Pawlenty merged the two separate plans and reintroduced them, hoping this time to avoid the tax panel. No luck.

On a bipartisan vote, House members voted 79-to-53 to kick the new hybrid right back to taxes, where its parent bills have been stranded for almost a month.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum was clearly upset, blaming the procedural move on DFLers opposed to new gambling and break-away Republicans opposed to new state spending.

"The unholy alliance is coming together here to say 'no.' But when you ask them if they have a alternative or at least an alternative that can pass more than their own mind, it does not exist," Sviggum said.

The gambling bill, as it now stands, combines a state-tribal casino partnership favored by the governor with a second casino to be run in conjunction with the Canterbury Park Racetrack. It would provide more than $200 million for the state's next two-year budget, money that Sviggum and Pawlenty have been counting on to balance the state's books.

But House Taxes Chair Phil Krinkie says the extra revenue isn't crucial. The Shoreview Republican points out that House leaders have already prepared a fallback plan in case the casinos aren't approved.

Krinkie says he hasn't polled committee members on whether they'd approve a gambling bill or not, but he endorsed the general consensus that his committee is skeptical of new casinos.

"Based on what I've seen and heard is that they won't get a favorable vote out of the committee. But again, it's just like they say in the NFL: that's why we play the game. That's why we have the hearing; to find out whether the vote goes up or down," Krinkie said.

The motion to send the casino bill to Taxes came from Ann Lenczewski of Bloomington, the lead DFLer on the committee and a staunch opponent of new gambling. Lenczewski says she made the motion because the casino plan had clear tax and revenue implications.

"This is a tax bill,"she said. "And what I generally do as I watch bills come forward is I look at them and say, 'should this go to the Tax Committee?' And if it's apparent to me that it should and it's not going there, then I'm questioning why."

The latest setback came only a day after two of three potential tribal partners abandoned the project. Both the Red Lake and Leech Lake Bands have backed out, arguing that they've no interest in a deal that opens the casino gambling industry to non-Native American interests, such as the Canterbury Racetrack. That leaves only White Earth as a potential tribal partner. And last month, a Senate panel had rejected new casino plans, leaving the House as the best chance for keeping the debate alive.

But despite the mounting difficulties, the governor's office says it hasn't given up. Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung says he thinks lawmakers will eventually recognize the merits of a casino that, unlike existing tribal operations, would provide money for state coffers.

"The people of Minnesota feel that we need to have more fairness when it comes to more gaming in this state. We hear it all the time when we're out traveling. But sometimes it takes a little while for legislators to catch up with how their constituents feel," he said.

It's not clear, though, what strategy Pawlenty might pursue. Asked if the bill needed further adjustments to make it more palatable or whether lawmakers simply needed more time to appreciate its merits, McClung acknowledged that he didn't have an answer.