Gambling opponents stepped up criticism of the Minnesota State Lottery on Thursday as it expands to offer scratch-off lottery tickets for sale on its website.
“Our state should not be involved in predatory gambling by encouraging families to take money from Main Street and blow it on Easy Street,” said Autumn Leva, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Family Council.
Lottery officials continue to quietly expand online offerings in what they hope will become an explosive area of growth for the state-backed gambling franchise.
The lottery’s expansion comes as a coalition of well-organized and well-financed gambling opponents have successfully beaten back numerous new gambling proposals at the Capitol, from a downtown casino to Las Vegas-style slot machines at horse racing tracks.
Lottery officials contend that state law dictates that they do not need legislative approval to expand online gambling options. Lottery officials routinely testify at legislative hearings about their new ventures, but they do not seek a vote of approval.
“The Lottery’s unilateral decision to expand online, without legislative approval … is an affront to the legislative process,” said Jack Meeks, president of Citizens Against Gambling Expansion.
The head of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota challenged lottery officials to allow lawmakers to challenge their expansion efforts. “If the Lottery does not share our genuine apprehension of online gaming being detrimental to Minnesota citizens, they should have no problem successfully navigating the legislative process.”
Online gambling made up less than 1 percent of the state's $560 million lottery business last year. But lottery sales have remained strong, having increased overall revenue for each of the last six years, even during the Great Recession.
Lottery aficionados will have their choice of a host of online scratch-off lottery games, digital replicas of the actual paper lottery tickets they now buy at retailers. Rather than scratching off the ticket with a coin, the customer uses a mouse and a cursor.
Online players can bet up to $50 a week, and problem gamblers can block themselves from the site. The lottery has several ways of ensuring customers are old enough to play and geo-locators to make sure they are in Minnesota.
The push into online gambling began during Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration has showed no signs of slowing under DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
Everything is in place for a one-day special session on Monday for lawmakers to approve disaster relief spending.
Despite weeks of talk of a special session the final confirmation did not come until Friday afternoon, when Gov. Mark Dayton officially summoned the Legislature back to St. Paul. During their brief time in the Capitol, lawmakers are expected to approve $4.7 million in disaster relief, $4.5 million of it to help communities damaged by the June storms.
As has become routine for governors, Dayton and lawmakers negotiated exactly what would be on the table for the special session before the governor officially called it. The reason is simple: While governors have sole power to summon lawmakers back into session, the Legislature has the power to end special sessions.
"If we don't have some sort of parameters around the session I think there would be a fair likelihood it would go off in a bad direction," former Gov. Tim Pawlenty said six years ago of his protracted negotiation with lawmakers over a special session.
Dayton formalized the negotiations. An agreement signed by the DFL and GOP legislative leaders as well as the governor, outlined four key points that they all could live with. The parameters included that the four legislative leaders would sign off on the exact language of the special session bill by today.
That sign off complete, Dayton proclaimed the need for a special session.
State Rep. Jim Abeler said that he is exploring a run against Democrat U.S. Sen. Al Franken.
"Minnesota needs a Senator from Minnesota who has invested his life in the fabric of the people who make our state great," the Republican said in a statement. "That Senator must strongly protect our personal privacy and liberty, unlock the stifling stranglehold the federal government holds on Minnesota, and recapture the flexibility we need to run our own state. I know I can be that Senator."
Abeler is a long time state representative, who has specialized in human services issues, who has evinced a tender heart for the needy but a libertarian streak regarding government intrusion. Abeler, who supported a gas tax increase when then Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed it, endorsed Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul last year.
He is a chiropractor who hails from Anoka, which has an strong independent streak.
So far, Republican business executive Mike McFadden has said he will vie against Franken and state Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, said she is considering a run.McFadden said that he welcomes Abeler to the race, "but my focus remains drawing a distinction between myself and Sen. Al Franken."
The push for expanding background checks to private sales, which has found a mixed reception at the Minnesota Legislature, received a boost from the state's prosecutors.
The board of directors of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association approved a resolution last week that supports background checks for sales at gun shows or over the internet.
The association, representing county prosecutors throughout the state, said sales among relatives should be exempt from background checks, as should other private sales that involve no more than five guns per year.
Currently in Minnesota, background checks are conducted for any guns sold by licensed dealers. A bill pending in the Senate would apply background checks to virtually all person-to-person private sales, except sales among relatives. A weaker version is pending in the House.
Debate on the gun issue could resume after the House and Senate complete work on initial versions of budget bills, expected to occur next week.
John Kingrey, executive director of the state prosecutors association, said the group was motivated by two developments: the failure of the U.S. Senate to pass a background checks bill and passage by the national prosecutors' association of a resolution supporting background checks.
The National District Attorneys Association adopted a resolution in support of universal background checks "to prevent felons and people who have been adjudicated mentally ill from legally purchasing firearms." The group's resolution said such a law should "respect the privacy rights of lawful gun owners."
The state resolution says the county attorneys support expanding background checks "to include sales at gun shows and through the internet. Exemptions should continue for transfer or sales among family members or private sales of no more than five guns a year."