Leaders are increasingly willing to take a gamble

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 29, 2011 - 3:36 PM

But others are there to remind them that casinos are not really an easy way to fund a stadium and other needs.

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Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak proposed three sites in Minneapolis to build the stadium. The first, called the Downtown East Site, surrounds the current Metrodome location. The second and third sites, Linden Avenue Site and Farmer's Market Sites, are located near the intersection of I-94 and I-394.

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No matter the question at the state Capitol of late, it seems, somebody says that the answer is more gambling.

A Vikings stadium-casino nexus seemed to grow stronger by the day last week. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak -- once known as a staunch opponent of more gambling -- popped up twice at the statehouse to talk stadium, and both times wound up talking casino at Block E, in the heart of downtown Minneapolis.

Hard on Rybak's heels Thursday was a release from Republican Sen. Al DeKruif of Madison Lake. A racino at privately owned Canterbury Park is the way to go, he insisted.

Meanwhile, the idea of allowing bars to offer "electronic pulltabs," as well as (or instead of) the paper kind, floated through the Capitol, buoyed in part by a surprisingly mild reaction from the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, which encompasses the only entities who now have license to run casinos.

Proponents say that idea could generate $40 million more per year for the state treasury. That's enough not only to house the Vikings in the style they fancy, but also to shore up the bottom lines of needy charities/schools/good causes galore, the argument went.

See how quickly gaming proposals can be linked to notions that run far afield of NFL football?

The case for a casino that stuck in my mental recorder was the one uttered by Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson on Monday. She reported that seven votes might already be in hand on the 13-member City Council to approve the installation of a casino in downtown Minneapolis. The reason:

"One of the things that's become clear to us as a city is that with declining local government aid (from state government) and declining support from the federal government, we need to rely more on the resources that we produce as a city. This is one of the ways. Because we are the entertainment center of the region, capturing revenues generated in our city is really important to us. This would be another source of revenue."

Do Minnesotans really hold that gambling is "just another source of revenue?" Because if they do, Johnson has come up with plausible excuse for a casino on just about every Main Street in Minnesota.

Every regional center has budget woes, caused in considerable measure by state government's retreat from its 1971 commitment to share state tax revenues with cities. Every local politician is feeling more heat about property taxes. Every one wants to shield city finances from state economic and political storms.

The circumstances tempt otherwise clear-eyed officials to see gambling as a fiscal lifeline -- even though there is abundant research-derived evidence that it is not.

"Casino gambling fails a cost-benefit test by a wide margin," concluded economist Earl Grinols of the University of Illinois in his 2004 book, "Gambling in America: Costs and Benefits." By his analysis, the costs gambling imposes on society in increased poverty, crime, family disintegration and lost work productivity outweigh tax gains by more than six to one.

That's not to mention gambling's less tangible side effects. When government relies on gambling revenue, it needs to promote gambling. That invites people to believe in something for nothing. It says that public goods and services ought to be paid for by "losers," not by all.

Further: Casinos drain revenue from other nearby businesses. They aren't desirable residential neighbors. Their business model relies heavily on repeat visits by compulsive gamblers. That amounts to preying on vulnerable people -- people government is supposed to protect.

It was good to hear those arguments at the Capitol, too, last week, courtesy of as disparate a group of legislators as any topic has attracted in recent years. The whole political spectrum, from Tea Party to MoveOn.org, was represented by the Anti-Gambling Nine.

"People should get acquainted with the idea that there are costs to this, and not get fixated on the fact that this is somehow free money," said the group's ringleader, Republican Sen. David Hann of Eden Prairie.

"We should have a debate on those costs. If people want to challenge the reality of [Grinols'] figures, we ought to do that. But there's been hardly any recognition that there may be a cost to doing this."

These nine legislators vow to bring those costs into the many Capitol conversations about gambling that are popping up. That may not make them popular. Polls have found considerable support for more legally sanctioned gambling in Minnesota.

But they have notable allies. Among the people most exercised about the Block E casino idea are the clergy who lead downtown churches. The Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen of Westminster Presbyterian joined the legislators Thursday to say downtown churches intend to "fight it with all we've got."

That's quite a threat, from an interesting source. One of Hart-Andersen's parishioners is Gov. Mark Dayton.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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