ST. PAUL, Minn. - A state Senate committee on Monday voted down legislation to permit casino-style games at Minnesota horse-racing tracks, the latest in a long line of setbacks at the Capitol for the track owners and horse breeders who have pushed the plan for well more than a decade.
The Senate State Government Committee's 8-5 vote against the "racino" proposal united Republicans and Democrats in opposition. Racino backers estimate that adding about 2,000 slot machine-style games to two Twin Cities-area tracks would generate up to $130 million in new tax revenue for the state and revive a moribund horse racing industry in the state.
But the proposal has long met opposition from both opponents of expanded gambling and from Minnesota Indian tribes and their political allies who see unwanted competition to existing tribal casinos. The two racetracks seeking the gambling opportunity are Canterbury Park, in Shakopee, and Running Aces Harness Park, in Columbus. Both already operate card clubs and have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying for the expansion.
"Racino will live on," said Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, the sponsor of the bill that failed. He called the proposal "part of the Capitol fabric. I don't think it will ever be dead."
Indeed, racino lobbyist Dick Day — a former Senate Republican leader — said after the vote that he and allies were already working on a new iteration of the proposal. The full Minnesota House actually passed a racino bill in 2004, but it died in the Senate; a version has never made it to the governor's desk.
"I get a little bitter, because it keeps going this way. But we have another plan in the works," Day said.
The latest plan had called for directing the new tax revenue toward merit-based college scholarships, modeled on Georgia's HOPE Scholarship program. But that was only the latest in a long string of potential recipients for racino money; the projects backers have floated racino cash as a way to pay for everything from local economic development projects, to accelerating repayment of delayed state aid payments to public schools, to a source of public financing for construction of a new Minnesota Vikings stadium.
Several members of the State Government Committee said there was a lot to like about the scholarship proposal, but that they didn't want more gambling to accomplish it.
"I cannot support the expansion of gambling to educate our kids," said Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis.
The tax money that would be raised by authorizing the racinos had been viewed as a potential source of public funds for to build a new Vikings stadium; Senjem said late last week he was open to considering that approach.
The stadium proposal, to build a new venue in downtown Minneapolis at a cost of $975 million, has similarly struggled this session. Gov. Mark Dayton met Monday with several members of the Minneapolis City Council who are cool to the proposal, hoping to win their support.
Dayton has been lukewarm to using racino money to help fund a Vikings stadium, saying he believes it would get tied up in lawsuits by Indian tribes in a way that could delay stadium construction.