Racino Lacks Votes, But It Could Be Session’s End Game

Racino hearing

Some present the controversial plan to add casinos to the state’s two horse-racing tracks as a rural vs. urban issue.

Others say they like the idea of giving the state more money, but do not want to expand gambling.

It is an issue that has been around the Minnesota Legislature about 15 years and at this point appears to again lack enough votes to pass. However, that could change in coming weeks as the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton try to pass a budget for the next two years, a task not going well.

That worries opponents of the plan, known as racino, who fear the gambling money would be attractive as state leaders try to fill a budget deficit while writing a two-year budget that will top $34 billion.

“This could be a card that gets played near the end the session,” said John McCarthy of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association. “Anything can happen. This is an unusual year.”

Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, said he wants most of the state money from racinos to go for increasing the number of jobs in businesses around the state, but admitted the money is tempting. “This could take care of a lot of problems.”

While Gunther’s economic development portion of the state proceeds could amount to $135 million annually, some estimate that $250 million would be available to the state.

Gunther said a bill to build a Vikings football stadium needs money, and although that is not his intention, the bill could provide some of those funds.

First, however, the bill needs to pass the House Jobs and Economic Development Finance Committee he leads.

Gunther held a hearing on his bill Thursday, but did not take a vote. Instead, he said that he hopes to schedule another hearing next week, with more testimony and a vote.

However, passage is not certain.

“It was very close,” he said of when he checked with committee members.

The same is true in the whole House.

A planned Wednesday night Senate racino hearing was canceled abruptly, with McCarthy saying it was because there were not enough votes to pass the bill out of committee.

However, in the Minnesota Legislature any proposal can resurface at any time, and racino opponents told Gunther’s committee that would be a bad idea.

Chairwoman Karen R. Diver of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa said her band’s Cloquet-area Black Bear Casino employs 2,200 workers and adding other casinos would threaten some of the jobs.

“The pie will be cut smaller,” she said.

The casino funds services not only for the 4,400-member band, Diver said, but for the surrounding area.

While Gunther wants racino money to fund economic development, Diver said that existing state programs “have not come to bear in Indian country.”

Leaders of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe said racinos and other gambling proposals would move jobs from their rural areas, where they run two Grand Casino operations, and into the Twin Cities.

“Rural Minnesota has been the beneficiary” of Indian gaming, Grand Casino’s Angela Heikes said.

The story is the same at Prairie’s Edge Casino Resort near Granite Falls, employee Richard Hermanson said. The Upper Sioux Community’s casino is the area’s biggest employer, he said.

Gunther, however, said racinos at Running Aces and Canterbury Park race tracks could provide needed money for statewide economic development. Other states have far more money to spend attracting business than Minnesota, he said.

Iowa, for instance, just approved $55 million “to continue to try to steal Minnesota businesses,” Gunther said.

Minnesota now has $20 million to attract business.

Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, said an Iron Range economic development fund produced 4,580 jobs in the last 10 years, so he sees the value in a statewide fund.

Dill represents the main problem Gunther faces. While Dill wants to economic development money, he does not — yet, at least — favor a racino as a way to produce it.