Politics and Government

Walz shakes up horse racing regulatory board with 2 picks tied to tribal gambling

Canterbury Park
Horses race at Canterbury Park in Shakopee in this 2009 photo.
Flickr user FranklinPhotos

Two newly named members of the Minnesota Racing Commission that oversee the state’s horse tracks have deep ties to Native American tribes that have large casino operations. It’s the latest volley in a long-running dispute over the extent of legal gambling in Minnesota.

On Friday, Gov. Tim Walz appointed Melanie Benjamin of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and Johnny Johnson of the Prairie Island Indian Community to the nine-member commission. It comes just months after the panel received blowback from tribal interests and state lawmakers for authorizing a new form of betting on horse races that is similar to video poker.

The appointments blindsided the track operators — Benjamin and Johnson applied just a day before they were named — and raised questions about whether a potential competitor would be regulating a rival industry and able to access confidential information on their operations.  

Walz defended the selections on Monday by calling his picks “two Minnesota citizens that have extensive experience in regulation, especially around gambling and they’re citizens and have every right to be on there.”

In April, the commission approved historical horse racing in a five to one decision, which riled tribal officials who say they weren’t consulted. The games use terminals to allow bets on randomly selected races from the past.

Asked if the appointments should be seen as a response to that decision this spring, the DFL governor said of the commission, “They should certainly follow the rules, which they obviously did not do the last time. That would be one thing.”

The commission made the move amid a fight at the Capitol over another failed attempt to legalize sports betting in Minnesota. Horse racing tracks Canterbury Park in Shakopee and Running Aces in Columbus have been at odds with tribes, who saw the new games as direct competition to their slot machine exclusivity.

The tracks argued the terminals could generate millions of dollars that would flow into race purses and the state’s horse-breeding industry. 

But before they could be installed, the legislature passed a new law barring historical horse racing and similar ventures. Lawmakers also reined in the authority of the commission to adopt new video gambling.

A woman poses for a photo in an office
Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe chief executive and tribal chairperson Melanie Benjamin in her office near Onamia on Jan. 26.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Benjamin, of Onamia, replaces Roy Johnson on the board; he had applied for another stint on the commission. Benjamin has been chief executive for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe but didn’t seek another term and will transition from the governing role soon. Johnny Johnson, of Welch, replaces Dan Erhart. Johnson serves as president of the Prairie Island Tribal Council. 

The Mille Lacs Band operates two Grand Casino branded venues in central Minnesota; Prairie Island has one in southern Minnesota under the Treasure Island Resort and Casino brand.

Benjamin and Johnson will begin their terms on the racing commission next week. Their terms run through 2029.

Canterbury Park chief executive officer Randy Sampson reacted Monday to the appointments to the racing commission by saying the tracks would effectively be forced to share confidential business information with gambling competitors.

“Canterbury Park has been clear that we believe Minnesotans benefit most when tracks, tribal casinos and charitable gambling can all successfully compete,” Sampson said in a written statement. “We do not believe it is appropriate for competitors of the racetracks to serve in the role of our regulators, and it would be difficult to find a precedent for the recent appointments of long-time leaders of tribal nations that own two of the state’s largest casino operations as members of the Minnesota Racing Commission.”

A message placed with the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association was not immediately returned.

Also, this spring, the parent company of Running Aces filed a federal lawsuit against the major Native tribes that share geography with Minnesota, while naming some tribal leaders individually. The lawsuit alleges the tribes have gone beyond their gambling authority with some of their game options. The case is pending.