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Fighting the Gambling Expansion Wars
by John McCarthy
n the May 2010 issue of Indian Gaming magazine, I wrote about the ongoing ﬁght over a proposed racino at Canterbury Park, the only thoroughbred racetrack in Minnesota. A Canterbury racino with more than 2,000 slot machines and a card club could put a serious dent in the revenues of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, whose Mystic Lake Casino is just a mile down the road from the track. The 2010 proposal also included authorization for slots at Running Aces, a harness track in the north metro area of the Twin Cities. That facility would have been a serious threat to the tribal casinos operated by the Mille Lacs and Fond du Lac Bands of Ojibwe. Although Running Aces was excised from the racino proposal at the ﬁnal hour, and the bill ultimately defeated, both tracks are back again this year seeking racino legislation. But that’s not all. An explosion of expansion bills has made 2011 one of the toughest years MIGA tribes have faced since the compacts were signed in 1989. There are at least half a dozen additional proposals for gambling expansion, ranging from slot machines in licensed liquor establishments and a casino at Minneapolis-St. Paul
International Airport, to a casino in downtown Minneapolis and electronic pulltabs and bingo in bars, bowling alleys and restaurants. Everybody wants a piece of the gambling pie. One driving force behind these expansion initiatives is the state’s miserable ﬁnancial condition. The State of Minnesota faces a budget deﬁcit of about $6 billion. The Republicancontrolled legislature has stated in no uncertain terms its refusal to consider any tax increases, even for the wealthiest Minnesotans. So lawmakers are looking for easier, less politically dangerous ways to raise new revenues. Unfortunately, racinos just don’t generate enough revenue to make a dent in most state deﬁcits. In Minnesota, even the rosiest racino revenue projections will generate less than $150 million a year, barely enough to cover two percent of the state’s budget shortfall. That leads us to the other driving force behind these expansion efforts. It just plain drives some people crazy that Indian tribes can do something most non-Indians can’t do – operate casinos. They argue that they need a “level playing ﬁeld” to compete with tribal gaming.
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Of all the arguments in favor of gambling expansion, the “level playing ﬁeld” argument is the most absurd. Even with twenty years of gambling success under our belts, most Indian tribes are still struggling to undo the effects of more than a century of poverty, oppression and neglect. Where were the “level playing ﬁeld” advocates during those dark days? In the case of Canterbury Park and Running Aces, this argument is especially laughable. A majority of Canterbury’s stock is owned by a handful of extremely wealthy investors, a few from one family in Minnesota but many from outside the state. Running Aces is owned by a wealthy hedge fund from the East Coast. These are hardly disadvantaged entrepreneurs suffering from unfair competition from Indian tribes. Earlier I mentioned that some legislators see gambling expansion as an alternative that is less politically dangerous than tax increases. There’s something disturbing about that. Do they believe that doing harm to Indian people is somehow more politically acceptable than raising taxes? Do they sense that some voters resent the success of Indian tribes? Do they feel safe in proposing policies that beneﬁt a small group of wealthy individuals at the expense of Native communities? We may never know what really motivates these people, and maybe it doesn’t even matter. The important thing is for Indian Country to exercise its considerable political muscle and make sure that those who do harm to Indian Country
feel the political consequences of their actions. Tribes usually do a good job of getting out the Native vote, but when the campaigns are over, we tend to forget about politics until the next election cycle. The push for gambling expansion at the expense of tribal nations is one compelling reason why we can’t afford to do that anymore. We have to stay politically engaged every day. We have to ﬁnd new ways of mobilizing our tribal members, employees, vendors and all those who beneﬁt from what we do. We have to master the new tools of mass communication and advocacy, including online systems and social media like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. It’s not enough to get our friends elected. No matter their party afﬁliation, we need to give them the support and grassroots strength they need to advocate aggressively on our behalf. We need to make sure they have the information they need to defend our position. Most importantly, we need to let our political adversaries on both sides of the aisle know that damaging tribal gaming hurts not only Indian people but also thousands of non-Indian people and communities who have come to rely on us for their economic health. p John McCarthy is Executive Director of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association. He can be reached by calling (218) 751-0560 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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