When a wealthy tribal casino offered a struggling racetrack $75 million to drop its racino campaign, it looked like the end of the 15-year effort to bring racetrack casinos to Minnesota.
"Racino is dead," tweeted Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, when the state racing commission approved the casino-racetrack partnership last week. "Anyone sayin otherwise is trying 2 sell something. I chief authored it last session and even I won't vote 4 it now."
Racino was one of those perennial fixtures at the Legislature. Every year, it seemed, there was another racino bill, another debate, another small fortune spent on lobbying for and against expanded gambling at Minnesota racetracks.
But that was before the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux offered to pump $75 million from their Mystic Lake casino earnings into purses at the neighboring Canterbury Park racetrack over the next 10 years. In return, the track agreed not just to drop its push for racino, but to lobby against it.
"Will there ever be racino [lobbying at the Capitol] again? I don't know," said former state Sen. Dick Day, who has been lobbying for racinos since 1997. "It'll probably go by the wayside, at least for now."
Canterbury wasn't just the leading voice for racino lobbying, it was also its strongest financial backer. Between 2005 and 2011, pro-racino interests spent more than $3 million on lobbying at the Capitol, according to the most recent figures from the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. More than $1.9 million of that total came from Canterbury.
Over the same span, the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association and 11 casino-owning tribes spent $12 million on legislative lobbying.
Even before the tribe approached Canterbury President Randy Sampson with the deal, which also includes an $8.5 million marketing partnership, Sampson said he was ready to give up on the lobbying campaign, doubtful that the initiative would ever pass a skeptical Legislature.
Racino supporters are now keeping a careful eye on the gambling expansion that did pass the Legislature this year -- electronic pull-tab machines that will be placed in bars and restaurants across the state. The machines are supposed to raise $348 million in taxes to underwrite the state's share of a new Vikings stadium. If they don't, interest in racino could revive.
Meanwhile, the state's other horse track, Running Aces Harness Park, which spent $80,000 on lobbying between 2005 and 2011, says it will keep fighting. "We intend to pursue the racino issue, on our own if we have to," Running Aces spokesman John Derus told the racing commission. "We still think it has a very strong chance of passage and we do take umbrage with the fact that Canterbury, not only will they not pursue it, but they will fight anybody who will does pursue it."
Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, who sponsored this year's racino bill, says he doubts the issue is gone for good. "You'll never keep racino off the charts" in the Legislature, he said. "It's as much a part of [this building] as the statues."