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Save professional teams in Minnesota with casinos

ST. PAUL, Minn. ? A Minnesota gambling promoter claims private casinos in the Twin Cities will solve the problem with a sports stadium, and the tribes that have casinos in the state say the proposal will open the state up to gambling on every corner.

A proposal promoted by James Belisle, president of Multi-Gaming Management Inc. of Edina, Minn., would put $450 million on the table, build a stadium for the Minnesota Twins and the Vikings and also relieve the large debit spending for the state.

"We are opposed to the expansion of gambling since 1989, by the state or private owners. It's the domino theory; once it starts it will never end," said John McCarthy, executive director for the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association.

"The situation in Minnesota is that the tribal casinos are in locations that create a partnership with rural economies and any expansion will jeopardize that situation."

The gaming tribes of Minnesota are in opposition even to their own expansion. The MIGA members in fact have agreed to not ask the state for different or more games and will not expand gaming operations off reservations. Those are also provisions in the gaming compact the tribes have with the state.

A proposal to place a state-owned or private casino or even two in the Twin Cities will have a detrimental effect on the rural areas, which the tribal gaming facilities now serve, tribal gaming officials argue. Some legislators who heard the proposals in interim committee meetings also questioned whether opening gambling statewide to all potential license holders was not opening the door to unbridled gambling.

But a series of proposals for state-owned or privately owned gaming comes at a time when the state is worried about the fate of the Minnesota Twins and the Vikings football team. Mixed with the sports fervor is the fact that the state is facing between a $1 billion and $2 billion shortfall for this fiscal year and the next.

The largest of the proposals would include a $500 million up-front payment that would create a partnership with the sports teams. A new stadium would bear the name of the gaming corporation, according to the contract proposal. This proposal, should the state legislature approve, would go up for bids.

"This proposal would have bidders lining up in the streets with the prospect of having two casinos in a metro area," McCarthy said.

Also opponents claim the contract has the devil in the details that would allow for two casinos in the Twin Cities rather than one and provide a 30-year license for the operators. McCarthy said as people begin to look at the details of this and other proposals they become less enthusiastic.

Belisle said he had gathered a team of investors together that would come up with the $450 million, the most ever paid up front for a casino operation. The Twins and Vikings would each provide $150 million to build the state-of-the-art stadiums without any cost to the taxpayers, he said.

Currently the tribes in Minnesota that operate casinos have 16,000 gaming devices. That figure has grown over the years, but is still within the limits of the gaming compact, which does not have an expiration date, McCarthy said. The tribes have not asked for one new game over the years and instead have upgraded their operations to include hotels, resorts, convention facilities and golf courses.

MIGA members argue that none of the proposals for new casinos includes any provision for the rural areas, to which the tribes are closely tied.

"They don't talk about the 14,000 jobs that tribal gaming created, and that the facilities were built at no state or government expense. They (the casinos) were built from nothing to where it is today with good pay and good jobs," McCarthy said.

Five proposals for gaming expansion may hit the legislature when it convenes in January. The first is the $500 million bid proposal for the state-sanctioned metropolitan casino that would bail out the state and provide stadiums for the two professional sports teams.

Another proposal would allow all bars or establishments that sell liquor or beer to have five slot machines on the premises. McCarthy said that proposal has been up before and was altered from 10 slots to five. With a total of 6,000 bars in the state that would calculate out to 30,000 slot machines, nearly twice as many as are in the state today. Detractors of this proposal claim Minnesota will look like South Dakota where small mom-and-pop casinos dot many of the street corners. Those small casinos, with a limited number of machines, operate video lottery machines that are tied to the state's lottery system.

A 50/50 sharing plan would allow for private ownership of gaming facilities throughout the state, but the revenues would be shared 50/50 with the state and the tribes. The tribes would be given the revenues based on population, which would give the Red Lake and White Earth reservations the lion's share of the split. Neither of those tribes belongs to the MIGA. In the past they have supported this proposal.

The 50/50 and the bar proposals appear to have the least chance of survival in a legislative committee, legislators and MIGA members agree.

The Mall of America could be the site of another casino, should a proposal pass that would give the state authority to operate its own facility. The director of the state lottery would head it.

Open gambling at a horse track facility that already allows card games are also on the table for consideration. The state would operate 1,500 slot machines at this facility, which is located just a short distance from Mystic Lake Casino, owned by the Mdewankanton Shakopee Dakota Community. This proposal has been defeated twice before, but opponents say that given the economic climate of the state and the sports mania, this could be a proposal that gets serious consideration.

The Shakopee Dakota tribe is opposed to this proposal, as it is to any further expansion of gaming, said William Hardacker, tribal attorney.

The final word may come from the voters of the state. Plans are to place the question of additional gambling facilities on the ballot to allow for a constitutional change. In the past, polls have showed favorable support for tribal gaming. A recent poll taken at the state fair this past fall shows the same sentiment among the voters. But it also showed some emerging support for new stadiums and a state-owned gaming facility.

Just in case, the MIGA in cooperation with the nine member tribes have pooled their lobbying resources to create a formidable effort. The opposition includes a conservative tax group, some moderate Republicans and Democrats and the liberal wing of the Democrats, which favors tribal gaming.

McCarthy said there were still some lingering questions about the tribes' in perpetuity compact, additional slot machines and the criticism of shared revenues among the tribes that continue to crop up among legislators and voters.

"These proposals may be a ruse to get the tribes back to the table to negotiate new compacts," McCarthy said.

The tribes strongly assert that no expansion of gaming that was not allowed in the compacts has occurred and that revenue sharing is as absurd as asking one county in Minnesota to help out another, McCarthy said.

"The tribes are political entities and sovereign nations. They do help each other, but not while there is a gun to their heads," McCarthy said.