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Casino supporters rally against more gambling

Richard Hermanson of Boyd tells a state Capitol rally Tuesday that he has worked at Prairie's Edge Casino Resort near Granite Falls for more than 10 years and bills in the Legislature to expand gambling could threaten his job. (Don Davis/Forum Communications Co.)1 / 2
Rep. Lyle Koenen of Clara City on Tuesday tells a crowd gathered in the rain at the Minnesota Capitol that rural jobs are threatened by proposals to expand gambling. (Don Davis/Forum Communications Co.)2 / 2

ST. PAUL -- Richard Hermanson has depended on Prairie's Edge Casino Resort to make a living for 10 years and said he is worried legislative proposals to expand gambling could affect his future.

"I can't afford to get another job," the 47-year-old disabled worker told an estimated 3,000 American Indian tribal members and casino workers Tuesday at a Capitol rally.

The tribes "earned and deserve" casinos, said Hermanson, a Boyd resident who works at the casino near Granite Falls.

The Upper Sioux Community's casino was one of many examples speakers used in an hour-long rally, held in a cold rain, against bills that would expanding gambling in Minnesota.

The bills would allow Minnesota's two horse-racing tracks to add casinos and allow bars to install gambling devices.

"Rural jobs count, too," the crowd chanted, emphasizing that most casinos are in rural areas and the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association says that so-called "racinos" at race tracks would draw gamblers to the tracks in the Twin Cities area.

More than 40,000 people work at Indian casinos.

President Victoria Winfrey of the Prairie Island Indian Community said her group's Treasure Island Casino could lose 300 jobs if racinos were approved. The Indian community government and casino resort employ 1,700, she said, one of the larger employers in the area.

While tribal groups oppose any new gambling, including allowing video gambling machines in bars, they most strongly oppose racino proposals.

"I don't think that would have the same type of effect," Winfrey said of gambling in bars.

Winfrey said that although the economy is improving, and along with it casino revenue, business remains slower than before the recession, so this is not the type to siphon customers away.

The Prairie Island leader and others planned to testify during a Tuesday committee hearing on racinos, but that meeting was postponed because the bill author was sick.

A racino would bring the state $250 million every two years, supporters say.

Backers of the gambling-in-bars bill said they do not intend to compete with casinos. The bill would allow electronic bingo and pull tabs for charities. It also would allow video slot machines run by the state lottery.

The bar proposal would provide $629 million a year to the state, $113 million to environmental programs and $229 million to charities, backers say.

Rural bar owners say they have been forced to lay off workers in the past few years, and cut hours they are open, but the gambling bill would help them.

Clark Lingbeek, owner of Windom's Phat Pheasant Pub, said small-town bars face smaller crowds due to several issues, including a state law banning indoor smoking.

Lingbeek and Bob Pallansch, who owns Double R Bar and Grill in Grey Eagle, said bars are losing young customers who are not interested in old-fashioned paper pull tabs now offered for charitable gambling. Pull tab purchases are down more than 35 percent in recent years.

"They are into electronics now," Pallansch said, and he hopes electronic gambling machines would attract a younger clientele.

Tribal casinos attract people who otherwise would be bar customers, Lingbeek added. In his case, Jackpot Junction near Morton especially pulls away customers when the casino hosts music acts.

Herby's Bar Grill and Café in Carlos, near Alexandria, is an example of how the economy and new laws have affected bars in recent years, owner Linda Dahl said. Her bar used to employ 20 people, but now just six work there. She said that the bar gambling legislation could allow her to hire back many of her workers.

Gov. Mark Dayton said he does not like expanding gambling in bars.

"That's a huge expansion," the governor said. "I think alcohol and gambling is a bad combination."

Dayton would consider approving a racino. However, if approved, he said, most revenue should go to education, and he is open to a Republican plan to send some money to business development.

Racino opponents cheered each other as they spoke against the plan during Tuesday's rally.

"This will just take gambling money and shuffle it around," Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said.

Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Tower, said he grew up in northeast Minnesota's Indian country and has seen casinos improve the quality of life.

Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, brought cheers when he proclaimed that he opposes more gambling. For the Republican, one of the reasons is that he wants to shrink government: "With expanded gaming comes expanded government."

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.