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Senate racino push at apparent dead end

Briana Bierschbach//April 6, 2012//

Senate racino push at apparent dead end

Briana Bierschbach//April 6, 2012//

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Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Claire Robling proposed an amendment to an education bill that would start to pay back more than $2 billion owed to the state’s schools by expanding gambling operations at the state’s two horse-racing tracks. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
Senjem admits it’s unlikely to emerge from Rules Committee

Session 2012 has been hard on racino.

The perennial bill to install slots in the state’s two racetracks, carried originally by Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, was yanked from its first hearing in the Senate Education Committee amid fear that the committee’s conservative members would kill it early in the session. In March, members of the State Government Committee threw several amendments at the proposal in a hearing, only to vote it down along bipartisan lines. Just a few days later, the bill got a new author, retiring Sen. Al DeKruif, and was revived for round two in the Senate Education Committee. There it was tabled for possible inclusion in an omnibus education bill.

Racino proponents made another attempt recently to get the controversial bill back in the mix, attaching it to a relatively obscure education bill in the Senate Finance Committee. The amendment, offered by the committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Claire Robling, would start to pay back the more than $2 billion owed to the state’s schools using a $130 million yearly cut of racino revenues. The bill passed on a 10-4 vote and now awaits a vote in the Rules Committee, where it could be sent to the floor for the first chamber-wide vote ever taken on the issue.

Racino advocates at the Capitol say the move kept the bill alive this session. “If Senjem wants to get this through Rules, I believe we will get this through Rules, and we have a fighting chance on the Senate floor,” Canterbury Park spokesman and former radio personality Ron Rosenbam said. “If the Senate majority leader wants things to happen, they tend to happen.”

Senjem: ‘A little short right now’

But Senate Republicans are less optimistic. “It’s a matter of whether we can get House and Senate votes for that,” Senjem said Thursday. “I think we are, perhaps, a little short right now. You never say never about any of this, but I think the stark reality is that that would be difficult.” He added that there are currently “no plans” to bring it up for a vote in the Rules Committee this session.

Behind the scenes, the issue has split the already divided Senate GOP caucus. The sudden amendment has prompted at least one unscheduled caucus meeting, a hastily arranged gathering March 30 after the Robling amendment passed in committee. The debate has turned bitter, sources say, splitting not only along old, established pro- and anti-gambling lines, but between senators supporting a controversial “right-to-work” constitutional amendment and the Republican leadership team.

“I feel terrible that we are the hostage bill,” racino lobbyist Dick Day said. “I predict, if it came to the Senate floor, it would pass by 10 or 15 votes. We just need to get it there. Everybody starts playing games or whatever, and I don’t like that. We are trying to get it to the floor, and we need the majority leader to say, ‘Let’s get it to the floor and take a vote,’ but he sure hasn’t shown any intentions of bringing it up. So we are a little nervous.”

Issue plays into ‘right-to-work’ tensions

Senators who support a constitutional “right-to-work” amendment are angered that the proposal has also stalled in the Rules Committee this session. What looked like a rump caucus of 10 Republican senators recently held a news conference to call on GOP leaders to move right-to-work, which would allow workers to opt out of joining a union and paying dues.

Now, the senators who are reportedly pushing back on racino line up closely with those who spoke out at the right-to-work news conference. They include Sens. Dave Thompson, David Hann, Warren Limmer, Roger Chamberlain, Benjamin Kruse, Paul Gazelka, Gretchen Hoffman, Chris Gerlach and a handful of others who are reportedly on the fence.

“It’s not just two or three of us, it’s a significant number of us who don’t want to see [a racino vote] happen,” said Thompson, who authored the right-to-work amendment. “It seems like these issues are never completely dead, but it seems like, right now, it would be really hard to move [racino] forward.”
Thompson said he was “shocked” when the amendment was suddenly brought forward in the Finance Committee. Thompson said he had talked to a lobbyist involved with racino issues just before the Finance Committee and asked if there were any plans afoot to move the bill. The lobbyist reported no new information. “Literally 10 minutes later, the Capitol was abuzz,” he said. “Yes, that did catch us off-guard.”

Hann offered a series of amendments in committee to rein in casino gambling, including a proposal to eliminate perks like free transportation services and game credits. One after another, Hann’s amendments were defeated, and the hearing grew heated toward the end when racino backer Mike Parry made the rare parliamentary move to call the previous question. The motion essentially ended debate. By then a crowd of senators had entered the room to watch.

“I have gotten the sense that that is an issue that really divides our caucus, and I don’t believe there is sufficient support on the Democrats’ side to get it done,” Thompson said. “There are a significant number of folks who don’t want to see an expansion of gambling, and most of them consider racino an expansion of gambling.”

Racino backers include leadership members Senjem, Robling, Bill Ingebrigtsen, and powerful Senate chairwomen Julie Rosen and Gen Olson. But Capitol watchers note that Senjem’s ability to effectively carry the bill has been hampered by his election as Senate majority leader. The race for the job was reportedly one vote shy of swinging in favor of Hann over Senjem.

“Racino is something that has a lot of public support, but it’s also an expansion of gambling,” said Assistant Senate Majority Leader and caucus whip Ted Lillie. “It’s a piece of a lot of different puzzles, and we keep trying to find the right place where it fits. It was the stadium, it was the school shift, it was a scholarship program; it’s been all of these things, but I think it needs more exploration at this point.”
Some advocates — and lawmakers — are already setting their sights on the 2013 session. Dave Brown, a freshman senator from Becker, says he could change his anti-racino position next session. “I’m opposed to it this year. I campaigned saying I do not support racino,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a core conviction of mine, but I want to stick by what I said in my campaign, and I may modify that for next year.”

The issue is a critical one in Robling’s district, where Canterbury Park is located. During a 20-day government shutdown last summer, the racetrack was closed and thousands temporarily lost their jobs. “I stood there reflecting upon what the shutdown meant to them and then I thought, ‘What would it be like for them to permanently lose this industry in the state?’” Robling said. “I really want to give them a hope that there’s a future for this industry in this state, but it just doesn’t look like there’s as much hope for it as I thought there would be.”

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