Political Matters: Native Issues in the Halls of Government

Betting on a racino
The Shinnecock Indian Nation happens to be located a stone’s throw from the mansions of the super rich in New York City. In the shadow of staggering wealth, the residents of the tiny reservation near Southampton, Long Island, subsist with a median annual household income of $14,055, according to the 2000 census. And many tribal members eye the lavish casinos in the region, such as the Foxwoods resort that’s owned by the Mashantucket Pequots.
The bid by the Shinnecock’s to cash in big with casino gambling was chronicled in a lengthy story, “Reservations,” by Ariel Levy, in the Dec. 13 issue of The New Yorker magazine. The author surveys the casino dreams of tribal leaders, and the objections of those who think that a mega-casino on the rez would be a disaster. In any case, the Shinnecocks became the 565th federally recognized tribe last fall, and a tribal casino in the Hamptons could be in the cards soon.

Of course, Indian bands have been operating a number of successful casinos in Minnesota for many years. As I wrote in this column last March, tribal casinos in Minnesota were sanctioned under the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA); and a number of legislators are perturbed that the state-tribal gambling compacts do not include any profit-sharing arrangement with the State of Minnesota, and the negotiated compacts operate “in perpetuity,” forever.
The pressure to expand state-sanctioned gambling will ramp up in the 2011 Minnesota Legislature – which has flipped from DFL to Republican control in both houses – as lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton try to patch a $6.2 billion budget deficit. The Star Tribune state political reporters wrote on Jan. 1: “When the new Republican-led Legislature scrambles to fix the state’s deficit without raising income taxes, expanded gambling could prove an enticing avenue for new revenue.”
However, the Strib noted that “spokesmen for the House and Senate Republicans say [expanding gambling is] not something currently being considered by GOP leadership. Dayton, meanwhile, said during the campaign that he’d consider a state-run casino, an idea opposed by Indian tribes. Former Sen. Dick Day, who lobbies for creating racinos, said he’s optimistic about passing a bill – particularly if legislators need revenue for a new Vikings stadium.”
Day, who was a persistent antagonist of Indian-run casinos as a state senator, now heads up an outfit called RacinoNow, which is lobbying to put slot machines at the Canterbury Park and Running Aces horse tracks. Both operations now include card rooms.
“Odds of a gambling expansion bill becoming law this coming legislative session may be as good as any in recent memory,” the Forest Lake Times reported in late December. The article said that the Running Aces Harness Park in Columbus, which has been in financial trouble, could benefit from the racino proposal.
“There’s no doubt this is the best year in the 12 years I’ve been trying to see this,” Day told the Forest Lake Times. RacinoNow asserts that the hybrid “racinos” (race tracks and casinos) could bring the state $250 million over the two-year budget cycle. Day also took credit for his group helping to elect a number of pro-racino legislators – a boast that is probably 95 percent BS.
Over many legislative sessions, gambling bills have been beaten back by an odd coalition of Indian bands trying to protect their casino monopoly and religious groups that see gambling as a social and moral evil.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty backed a number of gambling proposals during his two terms; and Dayton floated the idea of a casino at the Mall of America during his campaign. “I think we’re going to have to turn all the cards face up on the table,” Dayton said recently, according to the Forest Lake Times, which also quoted him as not ruling out a bill “because it’s someone else’s proposal.”
As the Star Tribune pointed out, the gambling expansion proposals are often seen as part of the solution for the Vikings’ quest for a new stadium. The franchise’s lease at the Metrodome runs out in 2011.
The Bemidji Pioneer’s Dec 26 editorial, argued for legislative action to build a new Vikings stadium, as long as the state’s general fund wasn’t tapped for the project. “Among the [funding] options are user fees, such as surcharges on stadium-related revenues like tickets and memorabilia,” the editorial suggested. “Other options include some sort of dedicated gambling, such as allowing video slot machines at Canterbury Downs, what is known as a racino.”