Tying together gambling, stadium a dicey prospect for lawmakers

Stadium concept
The Minnesota Vikings released this concept of a new stadium in downtown Minneapolis, April, 2, 2012. This illustration show non-game day activity and the proposed Winter Garden light rail train station.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Vikings

For now, the fate of the Vikings new stadium in Minnesota still rides, at least partly, on racehorses.

A move in a state Senate committee to allow slot machines at the state's two horse tracks as an alternate way to finance the state's share of a new $975 million stadium in Minneapolis is sticking.

Even if supporters remove the provision, the primary financing mechanism — electronic pull-tabs and bingo — leaves gambling and an NFL stadium firmly linked.

"We decided that probably the only way we could fund this was to go through the route of gaming revenues." said bill sponsor, Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead. The pull-tab plan is still the best bet for the project, he said.

Minnesotans already buy nearly a billion dollars of pull-tabs annually. The pull-tabs are legal, and an informal deal with the state's Indian tribes limits the number of devices and their encroachment on existing casino gambling.

But it also opened the door to more gambling and that is drawing opposition from some lawmakers. Eden Prairie Republican Sen. David Hann said the state should not rely on more gambling to raise money.

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"When you're asking people who may be least able to afford to pay additional monies, and charities who are going to give up roughly half of their income in order to fund a stadium for a very profitable and wealthy business enterprise, a professional sports team, that to me is not good public policy and we shouldn't do it," Hann said.

Electronic pull tab
Minnesotans already buy nearly a billion dollars of pull-tabs annually. Electronic pull-tabs and bingo, as the primary financing mechanism, leaves gambling and an NFL stadium firmly linked.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem said he doesn't think the racinos are problematic — he has supported them in the past. He said the electronic pull-tabs are a much bigger expansion of gambling, and that gambling in general is going to cost the Vikings support among Republicans in the Senate.

"I think it loses eight or nine members. So, that makes it a little more difficult," Senjem said. "I would simply say that's a horse out of the barn. People can gamble all they want right now in Minnesota."

But Senate Republicans are even more opposed to other taxes — at least those not on gambling proceeds. And with purple-clad Vikings fans blowing horns and roaring cheers around the Capitol, they run the risk of being in charge and taking the blame if the Vikings don't get a stadium and leave Minnesota.

The situation in the House is a little more complicated. Speaker Kurt Zellers was a supporter of electronic pull-tabs even before they were earmarked for a stadium.

"Again, I think the charitable gambling was something that had broad bipartisan support because it was for charities," Zellers said. "I think that was primarily an issue for all of us that was a positive."

But the gambling brings together a bi-partisan coalition of opponents, among them Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.

"Some people it's for religious or moral reasons. Some people think we shouldn't interfere with tribal gaming. One of the strong reasons for me is that if you put gambling in it, you're raising money from the poorest, or lowest-income Minnesotans," Winkler said. "It's one of the most regressive things we could do. It's one of the things that makes the bill more controversial than it otherwise would be."

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen is a stadium supporter. He said he doesn't have a count, as does Senjem, of gambling opponents in his caucus. But he concedes they have reasons not to like the stadium deal and its gambling tie-in.

"There's lots of concerns about expansion of gambling in Minnesota, and what that could mean for social consequences among many of our members," Thissen said. "I also think there remain concerns about the bill, — that the way that the speaker put the bill together, which is giving a lot more to lawful gambling than in any other bill — that becomes a challenge as well. So, there's a funding piece of it, and then opposition to expansion of gambling in general."

It's unclear whether that opposition will be strong enough to kill the bill, but it definitely will make for a long debate once it comes to the House and Senate, as opponents try to strip gambling from the stadium plan.