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Casino profits put on table

ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty may be ready to gamble on gambling. He teased listeners of his State of the State address Thursday about changing gambling in Minnesota.

ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty may be ready to gamble on gambling.

He teased listeners of his State of the State address Thursday about changing gambling in Minnesota. He hinted he may want to re-open agreements with the state's American Indian tribes with the intention of sharing casino profits with the state.

"My preference is to keep gaming within its current contours, but we need to explore a better deal for Minnesotans, and that's what we're going to do," he said near the end of a 39-minute address to a packed House chamber.

Pawlenty and his staff offered no further explanation of the comments.

The Republican governor delivered no new proposals, but did promise announcements to come on gambling and a new tourism marketing plan. He also promised a health-care finance reform announcement today.

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For the most part, Pawlenty reviewed his accomplishments and repeated proposals he wants the 2004 Legislature to consider.

Legislators interrupted Pawlenty an average of once a minute, although eight times only Republicans applauded.

Overall, the speech was less partisan than many. Near the end, he turned to Democrats seated on the west side of the chamber and said he wanted to work with them.

Although Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, thought Pawlenty's speech lacked a harsh tone, he and other DFL leaders found plenty of things they didn't like.

Senate Tax Chairman Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, was Pawlenty's harshest critic, saying the governor lied about not raising taxes.

Local property taxes rose $340 million and fees went up $400 million under Pawlenty's budget, Pogemiller said.

The most partisan part of the address came when Pawlenty mentioned -- three times -- that he and lawmakers last year balanced a nearly $4.6 billion budget deficit "without raising taxes."

Pawlenty used much of the address to discuss the importance of helping business.

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"The global economy is impacting our Minnesota economy with all the subtlety of a deploying airbag," he said.

The economy continues to influence the state budget. The governor said he expects the current $185 million deficit to grow to about $500 million when an economic report is released later this month.

The most-discussed part of the speech was his gambling comment.

"The compacts negotiated with American Indian tribes almost 15 years ago do not reflect current circumstances, and we need to address the issue," Pawlenty said.

Agreements with tribes are supposed to be permanent and restrict gambling expansion.

Officials with the state's main Indian gambling group downplayed the possibility of reopening the agreements.

Others see the comments as an opening.

Rep. Bill Haas, R-Champlin, said the governor now may be more willing to listen to his idea to open a Twin Cities casino to benefit two northwest Minnesota tribes.

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"That is where the economy really needs help," Haas said.

His bill, which a committee voted down last year, would allow the White Earth and Red Lake bands to build a casino. Its profits would help both those who live on the reservations and members elsewhere in the state.

The House last year approved adding a casino to the Canterbury Park horse-racing track, but the Senate has not considered it.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, has promoted the so-called "racino" as a way to finance bonding for public works projects across the state. He and Pawlenty are close friends and since Sviggum took up the racino issue, Pawlenty has softened his anti-gambling stance.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Don Davis at (651) 290-0707

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