Republicans may have a card up their sleeve in the coming budget showdown at the Capitol: gambling.
Despite a party platform that opposes expanded gambling in Minnesota, high-level Republicans are leading on gambling bills that would raise revenue without raising taxes.
On Tuesday, Senate President Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, promoted her bill to allow video gambling terminals in bars and restaurants. Backed by a coalition of nearly 5,000 bars and restaurants, supporters touted the bill as one that would generate thousands of jobs and millions of dollars for the state. Meanwhile, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, is co-sponsoring a bill to allow e-bingo and e-pulltabs in bars. Pat Anderson, recently elected Republican National Committeewoman in Minnesota, is lobbying for Canterbury Park as it works for casino-style video gambling at racetracks.
Outside the Capitol on Tuesday, signs of what could be a fierce political battle over gambling in the weeks ahead were also apparent as more than a thousand casino workers, tribal members and others rallied in a cold downpour to oppose any form of expanded gambling.
"They want to toss away hundreds of good paying jobs that are already in our communities," House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, told the crowd.
Inside, forces appeared to be aligning for a budget solution built at least in part around gambling.
"I don't see any way out of this where there isn't going to be possibly some type of gaming revenue entering into this," said Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, a co-sponsor of the slots in bars bill.
At a news conference, Gov. Mark Dayton said he's uncomfortable with widespread video gambling in bars because "alcohol and gambling really are a bad combination," but he expressed some support for racinos if the state's share could go to job development and education. Dayton and the majority Republicans are grappling over how to resolve a projected $5 billion budget deficit as a May 23 adjournment deadline ticks nearer.
Republicans are not jumping wholesale on the gambling bandwagon. But state budget analysts insist there is a $1.2 billion hole in Republican budget proposals and options are becoming scarce.
Zellers, who has supported racino legislation in the past, said he is not ruling out gambling proposals as a possible budget component.
"If the governor isn't going to veto it, then we need to consider it," Zellers said before Dayton's remarks. "But if he's going to veto, we're not going to waste the time on it."
Racinos could raise about $125 million a year once operational, while slots and games in bars could generate upwards of $630 million, according to the state estimates. Twelve GOP committee chairs have signed on as co-sponsors of the racino bill, which currently calls for putting the money into a special jobs fund outside of the state's general coffers.
But anti-gambling sentiment runs deep among some Republicans.
"The state of Minnesota should not fund its necessary programs through new gambling revenue," freshman Rep. Roger Crawford, R-Mora, told the crowd gathered outside the Capitol.
Upon learning that Anderson is working as a racino lobbyist, Republican Party deputy chairman Michael Brodkorb said she should either stop or resign her party position.
"It is entirely inconsistent for her to serve as national committeewoman while simultaneously being paid to lobby against articles in the party platform," said Brodkorb, who is also communications director for the Senate Republicans. "She will ultimately have to make a choice."
Anderson, a former state auditor and gubernatorial candidate, said the platform also calls for breaking up the tribal monopoly on casino-style gambling and that a bedrock party ideal is the promotion of a free market. Those aims, she said, are more important. "This is a free-market issue for me," she said of her racino support.
Anderson said she has surveyed party activists and found them "all over the board" on gambling. She noted that a similar racino proposal passed the GOP-controlled House nearly a decade ago.
DFLers, who dominated the Senate at the time and who had a long-standing alliance with American Indian tribes, quashed the legislation.
The Senate, now led by Republicans, may do the same.
"We're not looking for additional revenue in this budget solution," said Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo.
Staff writers Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Baird Helgeson contributed to this report. Eric Roper • 651-222-1210