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State-sponsored slots could raise $125M annually to offset deficit

Former state Sen. Dick Day, center, speaks Friday to the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce policy committee. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Every year the Minnesota Legislature delays approving a racino is another lost opportunity to capture at least $125 million in new revenue every year.

Given the size of the state's deficit, former state Sen. Dick Day said he's a bit baffled that legislators have repeatedly turned down proposals for a state-operated racino -- the commonly used term for a racetrack casino.

Day said he proposed a racino ever since 1997 when he was in the Senate. It was consistently ignored by legislators who opposed gambling and by those who didn't want to infringe on casinos operated by American Indians.

A racino would permit slot machines to be located at the Canterbury Park horse racing track in Shakopee

In a sales pitch Friday to members of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce policy committee, Day said a racino operated by the state's lottery system would generate revenue for the state instantly. Day now works full time as president of an organization called Racino Now.

"What we're trying to do is get the $125 million into the hands of the state from the operations of a racino," said Day, who said he is "not even a gambler" and said he respects people who oppose gambling.

Day said the measure is gaining support in the House and Senate from legislators on both sides of the aisle and he's encouraged that Gov. Mark Dayton said he would support a racino if the revenue went to education. That's what a number of other states are doing where racinos are popular gambling venues.

There's been talk of using racino money to help fund a new stadium for the Vikings football team, but Day said he doubts a stadium will be a high-priority issue this year.

Day, a lifelong Republican and former Senate minority leader, said the Republican Party has not been supportive of a racino and has an anti-gambling position in the party platform.

He attributes opposition, in part, to heavy lobbying done by American Indian tribes who currently operate 18 casinos in Minnesota that have a $1.2 billion net profit, yet do not pay corporate taxes or property taxes.

Putting slot machines at Canterbury Downs would create some competition and fairness, said Day. Neither of those provisions is prohibited in the original agreement that allowed Indian gambling in the state.

"In Minnesota, who doesn't love competition," asked Day, adding that taking money from people who "voluntarily give it up" is an attractive option to taxing people.

While some don't want gambling to expand in Minnesota, Day said it already has. In 1997 there were 7,000 slot machines as part of the Indian gambling operations. Now there are 29,000 slot machines. "There's a huge amount of money in this thing."

He said he hopes legislators are "level headed enough" to approve a racino this year to help off-set budget cuts with new revenue. "We're out of money in the state. We're in a little it of dire straights," said Day.

He said there's "no way" the legislature can balance the budget without new money. "And we do have one of the ways to give the state some money. If they don't want to take the money, then there's nothing I can do about it."

Day said there's a 50-50 chance it will be approved this year.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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