Minnesota Budget Stalemate: Legislators Wonder…is More Legalized Gambling the Answer?

As much as state legislators like to steer clear of gambling as the answer to all budgetary messes…Minnesota legislators, who are locked in a battle with the Governor (the state has closed down) are thinking about expanding gambling…to (what else?) bring in more capital.

A Minnesota Capitol undercurrent for months has suggested gambling as a way to help solve a budget impasse.

“The governor wants more revenue, Republicans want no new taxes,” Rep. John Kriesel recently tweeted. “Enter racino and Block E. True compromise. Both sides win. Minnesota wins.”

So, OK…what is the holdup?

Many state lawmakers oppose more gambling or have said little about using it as a way to bring more money into the state treasury, that’s the problem.

On Monday, the idea of adding slot machines to horse-racing tracks, known as a racino, gained a radio campaign and support of a major agriculture group.

The Running Aces harness-racing track in the northern Twin Cities began running pro-racino radio commercials in the Twin Cities, Brainerd, Fergus Falls, Mankato, Marshall, Rochester and Willmar.

Running Aces and Canterbury Park in the southwestern Twin Cities asked for permission to become racinos.

Also Monday, the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council announced its racino support. The council, which promotes the state’s food and ag industry, only said it backs a Canterbury racino.

Besides helping the state budget, the council said the ag industry would benefit from higher purses paid at tracks with racinos.

The trouble for gambling supporters is lack of widespread legislative support.

“We have very divided caucuses,” House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said. “We have folks who want to repeal the lottery and gaming in the state, period. And we have folks on every one of the gaming bills who say open it up: racino, block E, slots in bars, you name it. We have a wide variety, to say the least.”

And, the speaker said, he is not sure Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton would accept gambling as a replacement for all or part of his proposed tax increase on the best-earning Minnesotans.

“We need to know if the governor would sign it before we go to our caucuses,” Zellers said.

Dayton on Monday said that gambling arose in budget talks a couple of weeks ago, but it appeared legislative leaders did not think they could convince members to pass any expansion.

Also, the governor said, it would be tough to count on gambling money in the current budget because court actions could be expected to delay any new gambling program’s implementation.

On the other hand, a former Senate GOP leader and racino supporter felt good about its chances.

“I have this embedded feeling that it will come up before it’s over…” Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said. “It has got to be a player in the end.”

The major gambling expansion proposals come nowhere near the $1.8 billion Dayton wants in new revenue in the two-year budget. Racinos would bring in an estimated $250 million over two years, a bit more than pegged for a downtown Minneapolis casino in an area known as Block E.

Most other gambling proposals would bring in less money and appear to have less legislative support.

”It is not a cure-all for the problem,” one legislator added. “I am not excited about the idea about expanding gambling.”

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