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If Dayton won’t push gambling, who will?

Charley Shaw//February 4, 2011

If Dayton won’t push gambling, who will?

Charley Shaw//February 4, 2011

 Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
Regarding racino, Gov. Mark Dayton said he is

Governor’s budget won’t pitch  gaming, but bills will come

Gov. Mark Dayton stirred the pot last week when he acknowledged he will not include revenue from gambling ventures in his budget presentation on Feb. 15. The news left disappointed advocates of gambling expansion fretting that the DFL governor may be yielding to his party’s long-standing alliance with tribal gaming interests – which have given lavishly to DFL party units and campaigns in the past decade – in blocking incursions onto their turf.

Dayton stood out among the DFL field in last year’s campaign by virtue of his open support for a state-owned casino at the Mall of America. But lobbyists for some of the tribes remain unconvinced that they have found a new ally. They believe Dayton may still be inclined to accept gaming bills when they get to his desk. “I certainly wouldn’t bank on his vetoing [such proposals],” one said. “All he said is it won’t be in his budget.”

With a $6.2 billion budget deficit projected for 2012-13, legislators who support expanding gambling are preparing bills. Perhaps the most anticipated is this year’s version of the long-standing racino push, which would allow slot machines at the Canterbury Park horse racing track in Shakopee.

Dick Day, a former state senator who now lobbies for a group that supports a racino, said he is disappointed that Dayton will not propose gaming revenue in his budget. “I hope it’s the case that he just didn’t want to get into the battle of bringing it,” Day said, “because he’d have those 42 lobbyists” – Day’s count of the number of hired hands currently working against gambling expansion at the Capitol – “working his budget over.”

Day said his group, Racino Now, expects its bill to be introduced in about two weeks. He claimed the plan would raise $125 million for the state’s two-year budget.

Day and his fellow racino supporters got some better news on Wednesday, when Dayton reportedly told a group from Rochester that he is open to a racino. He qualified his position by noting he is not actively pushing for a racino bill and opposes using racino money as the source of a public subsidy for a Minnesota Vikings stadium.

“The racino has the advantage of being ready to go,” Dayton was quoted as saying, “[but] the disadvantage that it’s the two private operators and I’m frankly not interested in expanding gaming for the purposes of private profit. If we are going to expand gaming, I want those dollars to go into the public coffers to support school children.”

Already on the table

One significant gaming bill has been introduced so far this year. Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, has introduced a bill that would allow e-pull tabs and video gambling. The last time a similar measure was introduced, it bore a fiscal note estimating $630 million in biennial revenue.

“This proposal does have bipartisan support,” Fischbach pointed out: It counts Sen. Linda Scheid, DFL-Brooklyn Park, among its co-sponsors.

Fischbach said she is in the process of asking for a hearing on her bill, which has been referred to the Senate State Government and Veterans Committee. She said she expects the vote there to be tight.

One unknown this session is whether there are enough Republicans who support gaming to reverse the defeats on the issue in past sessions, when DFLers controlled the Legislature.

In April 2009, Day introduced his racino proposal as a floor amendment in the Senate. It was defeated 41-25. Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, during the same floor session, drew more support for his proposal to allow up to five video lottery machines in taverns. His amendment failed 33-29.

Last year, racino backers were heartened by a KSTP/Survey USA poll indicating that 80 percent of Minnesotans supported the idea. But the issue stalled in the State Government Operations Committee when Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, pulled his bill for lack of support.

DFLers’ ranks were trimmed significantly in last year’s elections. Some DFLers who have been willing to support gambling expansion in the past, like Sparks and Sen. Jim Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, were re-elected. But the advocates for gaming among DFLers are still outnumbered by its opponents, noted one DFL legislator from northern Minnesota who opposes most versions of expanded gambling.

DFLers who oppose gaming expansion find common cause with Republicans who oppose it on moral grounds. Some Republicans, like Sen. David Hann of Eden Prairie, have voiced passionate opposition over the years, and two of the most influential conservative advocacy groups – the Taxpayers League of Minnesota and the Minnesota Family Council – oppose gaming. The official platform of the Republican Party of Minnesota says no dice on gambling: “We seek to eliminate all state-sponsored gambling and oppose any expansion of gambling in Minnesota. In regards to casinos already in place, current gambling laws should be changed so that Minnesota is allowed to tax profits and revenue of tribal casino gambling in the state,” it reads.

Desperate times

Despite significant opposition on both sides of the aisle, legislators with gaming bills will try to leverage the hot-button issues of the budget deficit and the Vikings stadium.

Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, introduced legislation in 2009 that called for a constitutional amendment to allow revenue from a racino to help build a stadium for the Vikings. The Vikings issue is reaching a crescendo at the Capitol this session because the team’s lease at the Metrodome expires after the 2011 season.

Key players in the debate, however, are betting that gaming will not be an option for the Vikings. Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, who supports public financial help for a Vikings stadium, said she thinks involving gaming revenue to build a stadium would violate NFL rules.

Day agreed that lawmakers are unlikely to use a racino to build a stadium. Instead, he thinks the potential revenue from a racino or other gaming proposals will get serious consideration in springtime budget negotiations.

“When people ask us, we can honestly tell them they can do a stadium if they want,” he said. “But no, it might not be a very high priority. As we come into May and the state needs money the Vikings might not be a high priority. We’re a racino bill, not a Vikings bill.”

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