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Casino supporters protest racino bill at Capitol

ST. PAUL — As hundreds of American Indian gaming supporters on Tuesday rallied against allowing video slot machines at horse racing tracks, supporters worked behind the scenes to push the measure forward.

Despite pouring rain, racino opponents turned out in force, waving signs that read "rural jobs count too" and "don't gamble with my job" during a rally in front of the state Capitol organized by the Minnesota Indian Gaming Commission. Critics argue that racinos will take business from casinos in the state, meaning the loss of good-paying jobs in non-metro Minnesota.

Roxann Jensen, of Lake City, is among those worried about the potential for job cuts if racino legislation passes. She has worked as a cashier for a year at Treasure Island Resort and Casino in Red Wing and said she needs her job to support her family.

"It's hard out there to find a job," she said.

Supporters argue that allowing video slot machines at Canterbury Park and Running Aces Harness Park will not hurt casinos.


"I frankly don't understand how two small gaming facilities in Minnesota could drastically affect their existing casinos," said Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, who is chief author of the racino bill in the Senate.

Senjem argues his bill would boost Minnesota's economy by providing much-needed money to promote economic development. His plan estimates that the racinos would bring in $125 million in revenue for the state per year. That money would go into a special fund to encourage economic growth, creating an estimated 3,500 jobs. He also argues the racino bill is desperately needed to help the state's struggling horse racing industry.

A committee hearing on the racino bill was scheduled for Tuesday in the House but was canceled because the bill's sponsor, Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, was sick. No hearing has been scheduled in the Senate, but Senjem said he is confident he will get one.

With less than four weeks left in the Minnesota legislative session, it remains unclear whether a racino proposal has the support needed to pass.

Local pros, cons

Unlike most issues at the Capitol, the debate over gambling does not fall along party lines. Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, is a co-sponsor of the bill and a major supporter. Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, bashed the proposal during the rally.

Views are also mixed among Republicans. Rep. Rich Murray, R-Albert Lea, serves on the House Jobs and Economic Development Finance Committee, which is expected to vote on the proposal. At this point, he said he is not sure how he will vote.

"Racino right now to me is a tough vote, because I can make a case for both sides of it," Murray said.


He said he has heard from people in the agriculture community who back racinos because they say it will provide an economic boost. Still, he said, he does not like the idea of expanding gambling because he is concerned how it can affect families.

So, does he think there are enough votes on the committee to pass the bill at this point?

"It's really close," he said.

Red Wing Republican Rep. Tim Kelly said he is firmly opposed to expanding gambling. He said he is concerned about how the racino proposal would affect Treasure Island Resort and Casino, which is run by the Prairie Island Indian Community.

"Treasure Island is our No. 1 employer in the county," Kelly said.

Instead of looking to expand gambling, Kelly said, it might make more sense to try to reach an agreement with American Indian tribes to commit to share some of their profits with the state.

Governor's stance

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said on Tuesday he is willing to consider a racino proposal but it must meet certain standards.


"I am not interested in expanding gambling to benefit private operators. They will certainly derive some benefit from it, or they wouldn't be doing it, but I want most of, the vast majority of the proceeds from any expansion of gambling to go to job creation and education," he said.

While the level of support for the racino proposal remains unclear, one former lawmaker said he believes it could end up being part of an end-of-session budget deal. Former Republican Sen. Dick Day, who is now a lobbyist for Racino Now, said his organizations hoped to get the bill passed through some committees, but they never expected it would follow the traditional route to the governor's office. Instead, he said, they want it to be available to be brought to the floor at the last minute. One possibility would be to use proceeds from racinos to help pay for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium

He added, "Somewhere along the line there is going to need to be a couple million dollars for all of us to go home."

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