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Minnesota House OKs racino bill

ST. PAUL -- Casino revenues would help support state government in a bill the Minnesota House passed Friday, although representatives of Indian tribes said the bill is mostly about taking away tribal casino money.

ST. PAUL -- Casino revenues would help support state government in a bill the Minnesota House passed Friday, although representatives of Indian tribes said the bill is mostly about taking away tribal casino money.

House members approved 71-60 a state-sponsored casino at Canterbury Park horse-racing track in the southern Twin Cities suburbs. If the bill becomes law, 2,000-plus slot machines are predicted to send the state $100 million in the next two years.

Friday, Gov. Tim Pawlenty slightly backed away from an earlier comment that he would veto a horse-track casino, known as a racino.

"I don't care for it much," Pawlenty said, but he stopped short of promising a veto.

A similar bill is not moving in the Senate, but Rep. Doug Fuller, R-Bemidji, said the concept most likely will end up in House-Senate conference committee deciding the state budget before lawmakers adjourn May 19.

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The most controversial part of the bill came in an amendment that would keep the racino from being built if the state's Indian tribes agree to:

- Not increase the number of slot machines at their casinos,

- Pay 6 percent of their casino profits to the state,

- Open their casino books for state audit.

The amendment, which passed 77-54, uncovers Republicans' real motive, said John McCarthy, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association.

"It's about Indians, not the deficit," McCarthy said, indicating the bill is designed to cut into Indian casino profits.

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said his "no" vote on the Olson amendment was for a different reason: It offers a firm $100 million while estimates from other avenues on how much money would go to the state range from $30 million to $235 million.

Another Indian casino issue was expected to play a part in the debate, but barely was mentioned.

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White Earth and Red Lake band officials wanted permission to build a northern Twin Cities casino to support their members. It did not come up.

Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, voted against the racino but had offered reserved support for the White Earth-Red Lake proposal because it would have sent more money to northwestern Minnesota.

"I've always had a problem with using gambling as major revenue source," he said. "It's not the most honest way to raise money. It's luring people in with a false hope of getting rich quick."

Marquart said it is important enough to raise money for the state that he supported the overall bill.

In February, the state learned it faced a nearly $4.6 billion deficit.

House Republicans will not raise taxes to plug the deficit, so Marquart said the racino is one of the few options left to preserve funds for local government aid, nursing home and other rural programs.

"We have the most to lose in rural Minnesota," Marquart said.

Like many others, Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, is not a gambling fan.

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"It's been a tough consideration for me because I'm not a fan for additional gambling opportunities," Lanning said.

"We're in a situation where every little bit makes a difference," added Lanning, who voted for the bill.

"It was a tough vote," Fuller said, that came "after a lot of soul searching."

He said the $100 million the racino would provide the state would help make proposed budget cuts less severe.

He predicts the racino proposal will be part of session-ending negotiations. However, he does not anticipate the House sending the bill to the Senate in a manner like it has other bills, which forces senators to vote on the measure.

Forum reporter Steve Wagner contributed to this story.

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

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