Gambling no sure bet for budget fix
ST. PAUL -- A Minnesota Capitol undercurrent for months has suggested gambling to help solve a budget impasse that now has become the longest government shutdown in state history.
"The governor wants more revenue, Republicans want no new taxes," Rep. John Kriesel recently tweeted. "Enter racino and Block E. True compromise. Both sides win. Minnesota wins."
The Cottage Grove Republican is one of the outspoken gambling supporters, but many other lawmakers oppose more gambling or have said little about using it as a way to bring more money into the state treasury.
On Monday, the idea of adding slot machines to horse-racing tracks, known as a racino, gained a radio campaign and support of a major agriculture group.
The Running Aces harness-racing track in the northern Twin Cities began running pro-racino radio commercials in the Twin Cities, Brainerd, Fergus Falls, Mankato, Marshall, Rochester and Willmar.
Running Aces and Canterbury Park in the southwestern Twin Cities asked for permission to become racinos.
Also Monday, the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council announced its racino support. The council, which promotes the state's food and ag industry, only said it backs a Canterbury racino.
Besides helping the state budget, the council said the ag industry would benefit from higher purses paid at tracks with racinos.
The trouble for gambling supporters is lack of widespread legislative support.
"We have very divided caucuses," House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said. "We have folks who want to repeal the lottery and gaming in the state, period. And we have folks on every one of the gaming bills who say open it up: racino, block E, slots in bars, you name it. We have a wide variety, to say the least."
And, the speaker said, he is not sure Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton would accept gambling as a replacement for all or part of his proposed tax increase on the best-earning Minnesotans.
"We need to know if the governor would sign it before we go to our caucuses," Zellers said.
Dayton on Monday said that gambling arose in budget talks a couple of weeks ago, but it appeared legislative leaders did not think they could convince members to pass any expansion.
Also, the governor said, it would be tough to count on gambling money in the current budget because court actions could be expected to delay any new gambling program's implementation.
On the other hand, a former Senate GOP leader and racino supporter felt good about its chances.
"I have this embedded feeling that it will come up before it's over..." Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said. "It has got to be a player in the end."
The major gambling expansion proposals come nowhere near the $1.8 billion Dayton wants in new revenue in the two-year budget. Racinos would bring in an estimated $250 million over two years, a bit more than pegged for a downtown Minneapolis casino in an area known as Block E.
Most other gambling proposals would bring in less money and appear to have less legislative support.
Kriesel, a primary Block E bill author who also supports racino, said he has no commitments from his leaders about gambling.
"It is definitely a possibility," the freshman lawmaker said. "They haven't said 'no' to me. There isn't a lot of feedback, that's the problem."
He agreed with Zellers that the GOP caucus is divided, but said: "The further the shutdown goes on ... maybe people will come to their senses a little bit and say maybe this isn't so bad."
If it comes down to raising taxes or expanding gambling, Kriesel said he has no doubt that most of his Republican colleagues, who control the Legislature, will go with the gambling money.
Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said that if gambling is used to help the budget, it needs support from both parties.
"I have constituents on both sides," Urdahl said, adding that the issue has not been discussed within the GOP caucus.
"It is not a cure-all for the problem," Urdahl added. "I am not excited about the idea about expanding gambling."
Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.