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Minn. Tribal Groups Rally Against Gambling Bills

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) – Minnesota bar owners who hope to increase their menu of gambling options, and tribal casino interests who oppose it, clashed at the state Capitol Tuesday as both sides tried to claim they want to create and protect jobs.

“The focus on this is helping communities all across the state,” said Dan O’Gara, a St. Paul bar owner and president of a coalition of bar owners that unveiled a bill to let drinking and eating establishments offer electronic bingo, electronic pull-tabs and video slot machines.

Tribal interests that oppose a gambling expansion in bars, as well as another proposal at the Legislature to let two Minnesota racetracks offer slot machines, sponsored a large rally Tuesday in pouring rain outside the Capitol. A crowd that a State Patrol officer estimated to be at least 1,500 chanted a message that echoed their opponents on the issue: “Don’t gamble with my job.”

Curt Kalk, secretary/treasurer of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, which owns two central Minnesota casinos, said tribes fear that more gambling options at bars, racetracks or both would not create new customers for the game so much as attract them away from existing casinos.

“What we would see would be simply a massive transfer of jobs and economic activity away from communities around casinos,” Kalk said. Calling tribal casinos “the most dynamic economic engine that rural Minnesota has ever seen,” Kalk said the Mille Lacs Band estimates it could lose up to 40 percent of its business if the nearby Running Aces horse-racing track in Columbus were allowed to have slot machines.

But supporters of expanded gambling options, both the racino backers and bar/restaurant owners, are dangling tantalizing sums of tax proceeds from their proposals as lawmakers try to figure out how to eliminate a projected $5 billion budget shortfall in the upcoming two-year state budget.

Lawmakers pushing for the racino, which would authorize slot machines both at the Columbus track and at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, say the state would raise $250 million in the next two years. Their bill proposes that money go into a special fund aimed at new job creation in the state.

O’Gara’s coalition, Profit Minnesota, estimated that charities that benefit from bar and restaurant games would see $230 million a year in additional revenue, and that the state general fund would see $630 million in additional tax revenue.

O’Gara said bar owners believe more gambling options would increase traffic through their restaurant, driving up profits that would allow them to hire more workers, add employees, and fix up their buildings after several years of business struggles. Owners said they’ve been hurt by the slumping economy, the statewide smoking ban implemented in 2007, and stricter legal limits on blood-alcohol levels that qualify as drunken driving.

Howard Zimmer, owner of Howie’s Sports Bar and Grill in St. Cloud, said he’s offered paper pull tabs for years but that it doesn’t drive business the way it used to.

“These days everyone is playing with their cell phone or their iPad,” Zimmer said. “Paper pull tabs are just not exciting. You go to a casino, all you do anymore is punch buttons. So it’s just modernizing it, if you will.”

Zimmer said in the last few years he’s trimmed his payroll from 30 to 17 employees. Linda Dahl, owner of Herbie’s Bar in Carlos, near Alexandria, said she’s gone from 20 employees to six in the past five years.

But employees of tribal casinos and occupants of nearby communities said jobs provided by those establishments have been a godsend. Patricia O’Brien, a member of the Mille Lacs Band who works at the tribe’s government center in Onamia, said she can remember as a teenager in the 1970s looking in vain for jobs.

“There were none,” O’Brien said. “Now we have jobs for many, many people. We have homes, we have businesses. We even have a community center.”

Prospects are uncertain for the various gambling bills with less than a month left in the legislative session. Tribal interests and gambling opponents have been successful in recent years in holding back expansion efforts. Gov. Mark Dayton has suggested he might support some type of new gambling, but said Tuesday he was not inclined to back an expansion in bars and restaurants.

“I think alcohol and gambling are a bad combination,” Dayton said.

The racino bill was supposed to be heard Tuesday in a House committee, but that hearing was postponed because the committee chairman and lead sponsor of the bill was sick.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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