New Legislature likely to expand gamblingby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The Mystic Lake casino near Shakopee may be one of the few places in Minnesota where the outcome of the recount in the gubernatorial race between Democrat Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer won't really matter.
No matter who wins, the state's 18 tribal-run casinos are likely to face tough odds in convincing state legislators not to expand gambling.
Some of the staunchest protectors of tribal gaming are out of power at the Capitol, and both of the remaining gubernatorial candidates have spoken in favor of expanding gambling in Minnesota.
Emmer has supported a casino at a horse track in the past. Dayton has proposed a state-sanctioned casino at the Mall of America or at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. A recent Survey USA/KSTP poll found 55 percent of Minnesotans support expanding gambling.
"It's more likely at this point," said John McCarthy, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association. "But I don't think its any done deal. It's no slam dunk."
That's in part because gambling isn't a clear-cut partisan issue. Republicans have long accused the state's native tribes and the DFL of being in league. But taking power in the Legislature doesn't mean Republicans are ready to roll the dice on gambling yet.
"Our caucus is very mixed on this issue," said Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo. "We have very strong opinions on either side. I would say the other side of the aisle as well is mixed on this situation. So when the discussion comes up, it will be an interesting mix."
House Speaker-elect Kurt Zellers said gambling is not a priority.
"First and foremost [it's] something that's been a controversial issue in the past, something that's brought out some sharp elbows in the past on both sides," said Zellers, R-Maple Grove. "I don't think that's a good way to start our session. We're going to look at jobs and the economy first and foremost."
But within days of the election, several Republican legislators already floated the idea of legalizing casino gambling at Canterbury Downs or the Running Aces horse track.
Dick Day, a former Republican state senator and chief proponent of the idea, is among those that think this may be the breakout year for gambling expansion. He said a racino - a combined race track and casino -- could bring the state $125 million a year.
"We want to parlay that into jobs, whether it be incubator programs for companies or incentive programs for jobs," Day said. "But we want to put more people to work and of course with that, along comes the Vikings."
The team's lease on the Metrodome expires next year and the football club is insisting on a new home.
"If the legislators do decide to do a Vikings stadium, there's no doubt we got the only game in town," Day said.
And with a second straight multi-billion dollar biennial budget deficit, lawmakers will be looking for more than just stadium funding.
Dayton, the leading gubernatorial contender, said he thought the state could get $300 million a year from a Mall of America casino. In September, bar and restaurant owners pledged more than $600 million annually to the state if video slot machines are approved in bars.
Gambling's doubters dispute those figures.
But they also fear that financial desperation -- particularly among urban Democrats facing steep cuts in local government aid and property tax increases -- may break up what has been solid opposition at the Capitol to expanding gambling.
Tom Prichard, president of the Minneapolis-based Minnesota Family Council, which opposes gambling on moral and financial grounds, said opponents worry there will be a major push for gambling expansion for a number of reasons.
Among them, he said, are the shift in control of the Legislature, a change in the governor's office and the state's $5.8 billion budget deficit.
"I think a lot of people think that gambling is a way to spend money without raising taxes," Pritchard said. "We see it as a tax increase."
But even Pritchard thinks odds are better than ever for more gambling to find a winning hand at the Legislature next session.
- All Things Considered, 12/01/2010, 5:25 p.m.