Dayton 'very interested' in slot machines at MSP airport

Travelers at MSP
Travelers walk through the main concourse at the Minneapolis/St.Paul International Airport. Gov. Mark Dayton says he may push for state-run slot machines at the airport if re-elected next year.

Mark Dayton backed a state-run casino when he ran for governor in 2010 but dropped the idea after tribal casinos and local leaders objected.

His interest in gambling, though, remained.

Now, as he prepares to run for re-election, Gov. Dayton says he may push for state-run slot machines at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport if re-elected next year.

"I'm very interested in it," Dayton told MPR News. He called casino gambling at the airport an innovative funding approach, the kind "we need if we're going to be able to do what we need to do to keep Minnesota the premiere state that it is."

Whether it flies is another matter. Casino gambling plans have always been controversial and it's not clear how much money airport gambling would generate.

In the past, the Minnesota Lottery has advised the Legislature that 300 slot machines at the airport could net the state about $12 million a year. But it's difficult to estimate, said Ed Van Petten the lottery's executive director.

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John McCarthy
The head of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, John McCarthy says tribes oppose any state-run slot machines. McCarthy says they're concerned that what starts at the airport would spread.
Mark Zdechlik / MPR News

"Those are projections," he said. "Until you actually get into operation it's hard to tell because you don't know exactly in an environment like that what the traffic will be."

Three years ago, candidate Dayton floated a state-run casino proposal for the Mall of America but backed away when officials in Bloomington said they didn't want a casino there and tribal casinos said a state-run operation would cut into their revenue.

Tribal leaders continue to oppose any state-run slot machines, said John McCarthy, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association. The tribes that operate 18 casinos in the state are concerned that what starts at the airport would spread.

"It's the issue of the slippery slope," McCarthy said. "What happens then when somebody else says, 'Well we've got kind of a captive audience here and only people that buy a ticket?' It just hints of problems down the road."

The games could be limited to the airport and that locating them past airport security checkpoints would remove the threat that airport gambling would lure away business from tribal casinos, Dayton argues. Only ticketed passengers could play.

The state, he added, needs to be more creative about fundraising. "We're going to have to get inventive about how else can we raise the revenues we need without just raising taxes."

At least one lawmaker agrees.

DFL State Rep. Phyllis Kahn
DFL State Rep. Phyllis Kahn of Minneapolis has been unsuccessfully pushing air casino legislation for 10 years.
Mark Zdechlik / MPR News

For a decade, DFL State Rep. Phyllis Kahn of Minneapolis has pushed for gambling at the airport. It's a "no brainer" way for the state to haul in "free money," she said. "It's a good idea because it raises money that we wouldn't raise otherwise."

There's no doubt the airport offers a lucrative potential market - adults with cash and time to kill.

Travelers now shop for all kinds of stuff from trinkets to high-end clothing and there are lots of places to eat and drink. Nearly half the travelers at the airport are passing from one flight to another. Offering those out-of-towners casino games would be a great way for Minnesota to bring in extra cash, Dayton said.

Airport officials say they don't support or oppose casino gambling at the airport and that if the governor and Legislature decide to move in that direction, they will work with the state to accommodate the addition of gaming machines.

"It'd be a great idea in the airport," said Seattle resident Eric Wise as fed dollar bills into an airport chair massage machine this week, waiting for his next flight. He said he would also be happy to jam cash into airport slot machines.

Traveler Joe Guerrero of New Mexico also liked the idea of state-sponsored casino gambling at the airport. "I think it's an opportunity that can be taken advantage of," he said.

Guerrero, though, made it clear he would not waste his money on airport casino games.