Minnesota's three major party gubernatorial candidates would consider expanding gambling to help the state recover from the economic downturn, a prospect that has brightened the hopes of those lobbying to put slot machines in the state's horse tracks.
Although Native American tribes say they'll fight any attempts to expand gambling that would present competition to Indian casinos, two of the candidates -- Democrat Mark Dayton and the Independence Party's Tom Horner -- both say they'd like to expand gambling to help solve the state's $5.8 billion budget deficit.
Horner is proposing a racino measure which would allow the state's two horse tracks to install slot machines. He wants to use the $250 million in projected new revenues to build a new Vikings stadium and to fix the state's budget.
"We have a $6 billion shortfall. Legislators understand how deep that hole is and how hard it will be to climb out of it," Horner said. "I think gambling is going to be an option that will get a closer look than it has in past years."
Dayton would like to establish a new casino at the Mall of America or at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. He also said a state-run casino in the Twin Cities metropolitan area would be good for the state because it would provide competition to Mystic Lake, which is run by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux community.
"I think for there to be a government-protected monopoly on that in the metro area is not in the best interest of the people in Minnesota," Dayton said. "We need the revenues. Competition is good for retailers, as my family has learned. It's good for politicians, and I think it's good for casino operators as well."
Republican Tom Emmer's support of gambling is less certain. Emmer, who cosponsored a racino bill during his time in the Legislature, said he doesn't support an expansion of gambling to help fix the state's budget problem. But he isn't taking the option off the table as a general boost to the state's economy.
“The tribes aren't going to roll over on this.”John McCarthy, Minn. Indian Gaming Association
"If there's an opportunity in the marketplace that's going to create jobs and that's what it's about, absolutely, we should support that concept," Emmer said. "But again, there are people out there right now, there are politicians who refuse to do the job that needs to be done in terms of redesigning government and getting rid of the bloat and the excess."
Racino lobbyist Dick Day said he's pleased to see the three candidates indicating support for gambling. He also expects lawmakers could be more inclined to support the concept once they're faced with the prospect of cutting key government programs to fix the budget deficit.
"We got a little wave going that is pretty good, and people know we need money," Day said. "If we can't get it done when there's a $5.8 billion deficit, it's going to be tough to do it."
But the backing of a governor doesn't always guarantee success. In 2005, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Republicans in the Minnesota House spent heavy political capital on a bid to authorize slot machines at the state's horse track in Shakopee.
But a wide variety of groups heavily opposed the effort. The religious right opposed it on moral grounds. The Native American tribes, who donate heavily to the DFL Party and DFL candidates, opposed it to maintain the status quo.
"The tribes aren't going to roll over on this," said John McCarthy, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association.
McCarthy said his members will fight any attempts to expand gambling. He argues expanding gambling would harm the jobs and economic development created by the 18 Native American casinos in the state. He also contends state-run casinos in other states didn't fulfill on the promised revenues.
"We're going to use every coalition that we can to try and prevent this from happening, which is part of the way the system works," McCarthy said. "Just because someone wants to do this doesn't mean it's going to get done."
McCarthy said he's disappointed that Dayton, a Democrat, has called for the expansion of gambling. But he said the tribes have not made a decision on whether they'll back a candidate in the governor's race.
The gubernatorial candidates will debate the issue Thursday morning at a TwinWest Chamber of Commerce debate in Golden Valley.