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For Columbus racino, second time may be the charm

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY
  • Star Tribune
  • November 19, 2011 - 10:11 PM

With the flip of one vote, a racino proposal that seemed out of the running when the Anoka County Board voted against it 12 days ago now appears to be a sure bet.

Commissioner Jim Kordiak, who voted against the racino proposal, said last week that he will bring a new racino proposal before the board Tuesday and says he has the four votes needed to pass it.

The debate over whether to allow slot machines at the state's two racetracks has heated up as politicians at the Capitol eye them as one way to fund a new Vikings stadium. In Anoka County, a racino could also mean as many as 500 new jobs at Running Aces Harness Park in Columbus, with an additional 500 temporary construction jobs, according to Commissioner Dan Erhart.

Racinos would require Legislative approval, so the Anoka County Board proposal is only a show of support. Still, it's an issue that sharply divides the board, which voted 4-3 against it on Nov. 8.

"If putting slot machines in our racetracks is a way to add to our tax base, and possibly add jobs, I think we need to have an inclusion of racino in the legislative packet," said Kordiak, who said he voted against it Nov. 8 because he needed more time to consider the matter. "The city of Columbus wants racino, the city of Forest Lake wants racino and the Northwest Area Chamber of Commerce has come out in support of racino. I think we need to support them."

But Rhonda Sivarajah, chairwoman of the County Board and a racino opponent, said Friday the proposal threatens to divide the board and "drive a wedge" between the county and the Legislature.

"I don't see how voting on racino helps us," Sivarajah said Friday. "We met with legislators the other day and they asked us, 'Why do you feel the need to weigh in on this matter?' We're weighing in on a divisive issue."

Adding 500 jobs

When Erhart proposed supporting racino on Nov. 8, he ignited a political powder keg. Matt Look, one of four board members to vote against the proposal, later called Erhart's motion a "calculated ploy to divide this board."

Sivarajah, who has sparred with Erhart on a variety of issues for years, agreed, but never mentioned Erhart by name. Instead, she emphasized that the County Board's opinion, while valued by local legislators, won't necessarily sway their votes. She prefers to focus on other issues for which the county has lobbied at the Capitol.

"We have a pretty narrow legislative package," she said. "We were elected to focus on an area over which we have impact and control. When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority."

Racino should be a priority, said Commissioner Andy Westerberg, who voted for the Nov. 8 proposal. Westerberg, who sides with Sivarajah and Look on other issues, emphasized that racino offers the state an opportunity to earn revenue from gambling that's now unavailable from Indian-run casinos.

Kordiak said he has spoken to commissioners Carol LeDoux, Westerberg and Erhart and he said they have told him they will vote with him on a proposal showing the County Board's support of racino. Robyn West, Look and Sivarajah are expected to vote against it, as they did last time.

"I didn't want the vote to take place the last time because I thought we needed more time," Kordiak said. "I felt that because of that, I had to vote against it. And I regretted it the second I did it."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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