The long-pursued proposal to allow casino-style gambling at Minnesota horse-racing tracks finally got a hearing Thursday in a state House committee, but is showing little momentum just over two weeks from the end of the legislative session.
Backers want slot machines at Canterbury Park in Shakopee and Running Aces in Columbus. They've promised that could raise $125 million a year in new tax revenue, which under the latest proposal would pay for job-creation initiatives.
The proposal has lingered for years at the Capitol, always thwarted by opposition from tribal casinos and gambling opponents. Supporters hoped openness to the racino proposal by Gov. Mark Dayton would give it new life this year, but it's yet to get backing from a single House or Senate committee.
The House Jobs and Economic Development Committee reviewed the proposal Thursday, but didn't vote on it. A scheduled hearing the night before in a Senate committee was canceled entirely; the bill's lead Senate sponsor said the absence of several members left him short of the votes needed to pass it through.
"If it doesn't happen this year, we can talk about it again next year," said Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester. "It will happen at some point, when the conditions are right."
Senjem cautioned he's not giving up on the racino push for this session. He said it could still be a piece of a global agreement between Dayton and Republican legislative leaders to fill the state's projected $5 billion budget shortfall, though so far none of the top Republican leaders have publicly embraced the bill.
Senjem said he has discussed details of the bill with members of Dayton's administration, giving him hope the governor might still be willing to throw more support behind it. Senjem argued it's more achievable than several other, more far-reaching proposals to expand gambling in the state: proposals for a casino in downtown Minneapolis, and another to allow slot machine-style video terminals in bars.
"This is two sites in Minnesota that already exist, and already have gaming," Senjem said. "That's a nice incremental step, a way to test the waters."
At the House hearing Thursday, several state and local economic development officials got behind the bill's proposal for a dedicated fund to bankroll efforts to attract and retain jobs.
"We need the ability to compete," said Mark Lofthus, director of business and community development at the Department of Employment and Economic Development. He said most of Minnesota's neighbors pump far more state money into economic development.
Still, Lofthus said his agency is neutral on whether the racino proposal is the best way to fund such efforts.
But tribal officials said expanded gambling would hurt their own jobs.
Karen Diver, chairwoman and CEO of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in northeastern Minnesota, said casino-style games at the tracks would harm tribal casinos.
"We know from our industry that the pie will not get bigger, it will just be cut into smaller pieces," said Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, which runs Black Bear Casino near Cloquet. "There will be diminishment in Indian country."
Former state senator Dick Day is the president of "Racino Now," the lobbying group pushing to add gambling at the tracks. AT the House hearing, he expressed frustration at the seeming lack of legislative support.
"The governor is with us, we've got bipartisan support," Day said. "People are sitting out here saying what's going on?"
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)