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Casino issue is dying, if not dead, at Capitol
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"We will continue to work hard to pass a piece of legislation that will benefit our people," said White Earth leader Erma Vizenor. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty's drive to open a state-operated casino appears to have finally run out of steam. After weeks of delayed votes, parliamentary shortcuts, and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, casino supporters on Tuesday pulled their bill from committee just hours before a scheduled hearing. Pawlenty administration officials now acknowledge that they simply don't have the votes necessary to advance their proposal. But they insist that doesn't mean the issue is dead for the year.

St. Paul, Minn. — It began as a proposed partnership between the state and three northern Ojibwe bands to open a new casino in the metropolitan area. When that faltered, the plan was merged with a separate proposal for a casino at the Canterbury Park Racetrack. Then two tribes dropped out, the bills were referred and re-referred from one legislative committee to another, and now the entire debate has ground to a halt.

Pawlenty Chief of Staff Dan McElroy conceded at least temporary defeat.

"It was lobbied by a lot of people. But it also was complicated. It has conservative opposition on both the fiscal and, kind of, ethical grounds. It has liberal opposition on ethical grounds. It has geographic issues. It's not a simple issue," he said.

But McElroy says that doesn't mean the issue is dead, even though less than a week remains before a mandatory adjournment date. Budget proposals favored by Pawlenty and House Republicans depend on roughly $200 million in gambling revenues and McElroy says the casino will remain on the table during closed-door negotiations between the governor and legislative leaders.

White Earth officials also pledged to keep promoting the plan.

"The bill is good. It's good for Minnesota. It's good for the White Earth Nation," said Erma Vizenor, the chair of White Earth, the only tribe remaining in the casino debate.

Both Red Lake and Leech Lake had signed on to a state-tribal partnership but pulled their support when Canterbury was added to the equation. All of the gambling plans, however, were vehemently opposed by the state's nine other tribes.

Doreen Hagen, the president of the Prairie Island Community, which owns the Treasure Island Resort in Red Wing, says she's sorry casino supporters pulled their bill pre-emptively, before the committee had a chance to vote it down. Hagen says without the panel's expected "no" vote on record, it's easier for casino supporters to revive their plans in backroom negotiations.

"It's been a long legislative session," she said. "And they have been going from one committee to another, meeting at night. And so hopefully it's passed. But we never know what can come up next."

What might come up next is a plan that focuses solely on a Canterbury casino without any Native American participation. Such a "racino" plan passed the House two years ago and is widely believed to have more support than options that include Indian bands.

Canterbury President Randy Sampson says he's encouraged that GOP lawmakers in both the House and Senate are committed to a pure racino and have suggested that that option has the best chance of passing this year.

"We certainly do want to keep our options open. I think that will play out, obviously, as the session finishes," he said.

But McElroy says Pawlenty is committed to making sure struggling Native American communities have a chance to benefit from any casino deal. He says the governor is unlikely to support a straight racino plan.

Democratic leaders say it's time for the governor to reject any casino options. DFL House Minority Leader Matt Entenza says the governor's enthusiasm for gambling indicates Pawlenty needs new revenues to fill out his budget.

"This governor has made it clear that he recognizes the need for revenue. The gambling proposal is dead. And now the governor needs to learn to compromise. And as Democrats we'll compromise on many cuts. Now the governor needs to compromise on revenue. And then we can get it done in a week," Entenza said.

Entenza says House Democrats have proposed a 50-cent fee on cigarette distributors that would more than make up for the foregone casino money. He's calling on Pawlenty to adopt that approach and close a budget deal quickly.