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Racino bill gets its first hearing

Published (5/6/2011)
By Nick Busse
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A plan to allow slot machines at the state’s two horse-racing tracks and use part of the profits to fund jobs programs had its first hearing in a House committee May 5.

Sponsored by Rep. Bob Gunther (R-Fairmont), HF1480 is the so-called “racino” bill. As proposed, it would allow for the establishment of video slot machines at horse-racing facilities. A portion of the profits — $135 million per biennium, according to Gunther — would be used for economic development projects.

The House Jobs and Economic Development Finance Committee took testimony on the bill, but did not take any action. Gunther said the committee will vote on the bill at a future meeting. There is no Senate companion.

The bill would establish a “Minnesota Future Fund” to pay for primarily jobs programs and assistance for high-tech businesses. Mark Lofthus, business development director for the Department of Employment and Economic Development, said Minnesota is falling behind other states in funding economic development.

“We are in a very strict competition for job creation in the United States and North America and around the world,” he said.

Horse breeder Jeff Hilger said the state’s equine industry is in danger of going under because Minnesota racetracks aren’t as profitable as those in states that have racinos. He said breeders prefer to compete in states that pay larger winnings.

“Every state that has race horse racing around us has a racino. The purses are higher,” he said.

Representatives from the state’s tribal casinos said the bill would take away their business, which would in turn cause job losses and damage rural economies.

Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Superior Chippewa, said the tribe’s two casinos constitute the second-largest employer in northeast Minnesota. Even a modest cut in payroll would be devastating to cities like Cloquet and Carlton, she said.

Marge Anderson, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said the casinos provided a path to prosperity to American Indians who once only knew poverty. She said they now live in fear that it will be taken away.

“Anytime our people have something of value, others want it,” she said.

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