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Senator to promote racinos full time

Dick Day, R-Owatonna, is leaving the Minnesota Senate to run an effort to allow racinos at the state's two horse tracks. He has been one of the state's most colorful senators since 1991. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- One of Minnesota's most colorful senators is leaving the Legislature to run a group promoting slot machines at horse-racing tracks.

Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, long has fought to allow so-called racinos at tracks, and now says he is looking forward to devoting full time to the cause. It could bring the state $250 million a year, he said, and create thousands of jobs.

"I believe this is the year we can put it over," Day said, because the economy has so hurt the state budget that money from racinos could help.

Day offered no specific proposal, saying that would come after he travels the state and he visits racinos in Iowa, Illinois, Oklahoma, Louisiana and elsewhere to find the right formula. He also does not have a proposal for where the money would be spent, although he suggested places such as education, health care and a Minnesota Vikings stadium.

Minnesota has two horse tracks, Canterbury Park in the southern Twin Cities and a new harness racing track known as Running Aces north of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Day was Republican leader 1997 to 2006, the longest of any Minnesota Senate minority leader. He long has fought for a racino, but said he still is about five votes short in the Senate.

Polls show 70 percent of Minnesotans support racinos, Day said, and 80 percent to 90 percent of people in groups where he speaks back the concept.

Day said that Gov. Tim Pawlenty recently promised to sign a racino bill during a well-attended GOP event. However, Pawlenty's spokesman downplayed any such comment.

"Gov. Pawlenty has stated many times publicly and privately there's isn't enough legislative support to pass gaming legislation and it's also not a road he's interested in going down again," Brian McClung said.

Day is known for his colorful speeches on the Senate floor, including shouting at the Senate leader at times. He often would start a speech quietly, then get worked up and emotional. Still, even as Republican leader, he could work with Democrats who control the chamber.

His successor said Day leaves a hole.

"The Senate Republican Caucus will deeply miss the dedicated leadership, spirited camaraderie and all-around passion that has marked Sen. Dick Day's nearly 20 years of dedicated service to the state of Minnesota and his legislative district," Senate Republican Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, said.

Day is known for his work on transportation and a racino. He was more successful at getting transportation legislation.

The senator began working on a racino bill a dozen years ago. At the time, the gambling would have produced funds for a new Twins ballpark.

This time around, Day has yet to decide where the money would go. Even more fundamental, he has not decided whether to pursue a constitutional amendment or simply a law. Many around the Capitol doubt whether the Constitution allows establishing racinos via a law.

Day said he would keep his Racino Now organization going if he is not successful during the 2010 legislative session, which starts Feb. 4 and likely will run through mid-May.

The tough economy gives Day the needed opening, he said. "If there ever as a time, the time is now."

Racino Now is backed by Minnesota horsemen and others connecting to the racing industry as well as people in the general public, Day said.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.