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Will Minnesota roll dice on expanded gambling?

ST. PAUL -- With Minnesota's economic chips down, several groups are betting a statewide expansion of gambling would bring hundreds of millions of dollars to the state.

But supporters will not hit the jackpot without a fight. Opponents cite inflated revenue projections, societal problems associated with gambling and the state's culture as reasons they hope the proposals bust.

At least two groups will propose legalizing casinos at the state's racetracks, otherwise known as racinos. A bill already has been introduced in the Senate to legalize video slots, bingo and other games in bars.

Former Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, has been fighting for a racino at Canterbury Park in Shakopee for more than a decade. He promises he will be back again this year pushing the Racino Now bill, which he estimates could bring more than $100 million annually to the state.

"What we're trying to do is give the state some money and a lot of jobs," Day said, adding that with the budget deficit and new leadership in the Legislature and the governor's office, he thinks his project has its best chance yet. "We know we can get a hearing."

The Running Aces Harness Park in Columbus also is jockeying for a racino, with spokesman John Derus saying in a statement that such outlets can pitch a significant amount of money toward the state for its general fund.

Another proposal with the potential for a wider reach is being brought by Profit Minnesota, which wants lawmakers to allow video lottery terminals in establishments with on-sale liquor licenses.

The group also wants to take bingo and pull tabs, games traditionally played on paper, and convert them to electronic machines that resemble an iPad.

Spokesman Michael Misterek said the bill would create thousands of jobs. It has support from Hospitality Minnesota and the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, and it would provide more than $630 million in revenue to the state and $230 million in charitable benefits.

"You are not talking about singling out a specific geographic area," he said. "This would touch every town, every city and every county throughout the state. ... We don't think of this necessarily as a gaming bill, we think of it as a jobs and charities bill."

Racinos and other projects also have been mentioned as a potential source of funding to help build a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, helped author the Senate version of the bill. A House version will follow soon. Greater Minnesota legislators, including Sen. Dave Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm and Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, spoke at a news conference last fall in support of the measure.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said many establishments in her district are excited about the chance add some revenue lost to the smoking ban.

"It's a great way to drum up money without raising taxes," she said.

But gambling remains one of the more polarizing issues lawmakers face each year. In addition to concerns about gambling addiction, critics say supporters are likely inflating the financial impact of these proposals. Plus, the geographic reach Misterek championed is seen by some as too big a culture shift for Minnesota.

"That's a huge expansion of gambling," said John McCarthy, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association. "More importantly, it has changed the approach to gambling. ... It's going to be in your backyard. You can do it practically anywhere you want."

McCarthy added that job creation numbers cited by both racino and video gaming advocates likely are overblown, as many of those potential employees would come from job losses at the state's 18 American Indian-operated casinos.

A potential Running Aces racino would sit in Sen. Ray Vandeveer's district. The Forest Lake Republican said he will read each proposal before making up his mind, but adds that gaming supporters have an uphill battle in winning his vote.

Vandeveer has concerns about approving video slots statewide, but is not comfortable just supporting racino, which would force bars and restaurants nearby to "compete with someone with a distinct advantage."

Unless the state plans to actively compete with Las Vegas and Atlantic City, he added, the likelihood is Minnesota will not attract gamblers from other states, meaning "you're just going to hand around our money from inside the state."

Treasure Island Casino is the largest employer in the district of Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing and he believes no expansion of gambling should take place without inviting the Native American tribes to the table.

"I'm much more interested in working with the tribe and offering other types of solutions," Kelly said.

Others object on moral grounds.

"For me it's a social thing," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. "I just believe gaming sends the wrong message to young people in the state that somehow you can make it without having to work for it."

Citizens Against Gambling Expansion has launched a website and petition drive aimed at stopping the expansion.

CAGE President Jack Meeks, in a statement, called gambling a drain on private enterprise and said it diverts spending from other areas of in-state commerce.

"The only jackpot this state will see with gambling expansion are lost wages, unemployment, bankruptcies, criminal activity, court costs, social services and treatment for problem gamblers," he said.

Andrew Tellijohn is a Twin Cities freelance writer who writes for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.