Slotsa Luck

EVER SINCE TWINS owner Carl Pohlad and his promo machine tossed out the first pitch for a new stadium, lawmakers have been scrambling to pay for it without ticking off too many voters. They've floated a tax-on-concessions scheme. No go. They've floated a cigarette tax. Again, no go, in large part because of the tobacco industry's lobbyists. Pohlad's not shelling out. Now, with less than two weeks to go in the legislative session and the outright threat of a Twins exodus on the near horizon, where will the buck finally stop? As of last week, the answer echoed through capitol halls: with those darn Indians who've been getting rich off their casinos.

Of the 10-odd proposals in play this week, the favorite is one penned in early February by state Sen. Dick Day [R-Owatonna]. While its specifics haven't been ironed out, the basic premise rests on the installation of 1,500 state-run slot machines at Canterbury Park, which could raise, by Day's rough estimate, up to $50 million a year. In theory, that's enough to overhaul the Metrodome for the Vikes, lure a new hockey team to St. Paul, and--jackpot--finance a new pop-top ballpark for the Twins. For the senator and, as of last week's head count, a majority in the House, it's political genius: Recent polls show a majority of voters like the idea of funneling gambling proceeds into a new stadium.

But as everyone from Gov. Arne Carlson (who wants a ballpark so badly he's waffling on his opposition to more gambling) to local sportswriters notes, the proposal would end the tribes' exclusive rights on gaming and will put the state government in direct competition with existing casinos. And that may be exactly why it's got good odds.

"Ever since I was elected, I've heard in coffeeshops, on the phone, in the mail that Native American Indians in Minnesota are getting filthy rich off gambling," says Day. A baseball fan, he denies sharing that sentiment, but acknowledges that under his deal, the tribes lose. "Sure, if my bill is passed, we would be taking millions away from the two big casinos at Treasure Island and Mystic Lake." His solution is to direct 2 percent of the slots' take to urban Native Americans who don't belong to a tribe that owns a casino. "We gave Indians gambling to help improve their lot in life, so to speak," Day adds. "Now, I don't think we should give the 2 percent directly to the urban Indians, of course, but it could be used for education or whatever."

In other words, if casino Indians won't spread the wealth around to non-tribe members, the state should take part of their market and do it for them. There are several problems with this logic. First, it's a cheap ploy to win some Native American support for the bill. Worse, it implies that Indians are obliged to bail out other Indians. Nobody, one activist notes, says the Fortune 500 should bail out poor whites.

Day's proposal is winning over rural legislators whose constituents, says one tribal lobbyist, won't pony up for a stadium they see as a playground for city folks. Because this bill looks to be targeting proceeds only from casinos near Canterbury Park and the adjacent Twin Cities, the assumption is that the money gambled would come from urban pockets.

What no one's yet been willing to say publicly is that the idea is politically expedient, but discriminatory. "The racist ethos was out there long before Indian gaming got tied to the stadium," notes Larry Kitto, a tribal lobbyist, who says that it's been suggested the tribes could preserve their monopoly if they made a "gift" to help build a stadium. "Conventional wisdom tells us if we don't cooperate and pay up to prevent the expansion of gambling, then they'll wipe us out." Ballpark pushers may get their wish on Friday, the earliest a vote on the bill is expected.

"Carl Pohlad has more money than all the 11 tribes who operate casinos put together," adds Willie Hardacre, an attorney for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux. "No one is dictating how he should spend his money, though if building a stadium were a good business move, he'd do it himself. Why should we? This proposal, simply put, is a form of punishment aimed at successful Native Americans." CP