Sen. Nienow pitches racino to latest Vikings stadium bill

Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, adjusts his glasses while listening to debate in the Senate Finance Committee on April 25. Nienow successfully amended a racino provision onto the Senate stadium bill. Photos by T.W. Budig

By T.W. Budig, ECM Capitol reporter—

Enter racino.

The Senate Finance Committee on April 25 passed a Vikings’ stadium bill, but not before lawmakers amended it to include racino in the bill’s arsenal of gambling revenue generators.

Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, saw his racino amendment affixed to the bill during the sometimes raucous committee hearing on a 11 to 3 vote.

Because of jiggering to Nienow’s amendment by a Democratic senator, both the charitable gambling provisions and racino now exist in the bill.

Nienow — whose edgy rhetoric enlivened the committee hearing — echoed his arguments made in committee after the committee voted to send the stadium bill without recommendations to the Senate Tax Committee.

“You can have slots (electronic pull-tabs and bingo) at three thousand places or you can have them at two,” he said after the hearing, referring to having racino at the Canterbury Downs in Shakopee and Running Aces Harness Park in the city of Columbus.

Nienow, who in committee argued the difference between electronic pull-tabs and bingo and regular casino-style slot machines is trivial, spoke of a perceived heightened risk electronic pull-tabs and bingo present.

“Every problem gambler will be five minutes away from his problem,” said Nienow.

A revenue analysis of electronic pull-tabs assumes they’ll be available at 2,500 sites with electronic bingo available at 1,500 sites in Minnesota.

Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, listens during the racino amendment debate on her stadium bill.

Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, Senate stadium bill author, spoke of dire consequences to the stadium initiative if racino was injected into the frothy political mix.

“I’m in trouble either way,” she quipped of negative political blow back from having either forms of gambling in her bill.

Rosen said the author of House stadium legislation would not accept racino.

Indeed, Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, indicated that having racino as a funding mechanism in the bill would not go over big in the Senate Democratic Caucus.

“I know there’s some very strong opposition to racino in my caucus,” said Bonoff, who supported the racino amendment.

But Nienow styled charitable gambling revenue projections as speculative — “fairy foo, foo dust,” he styled it.

He argued the revenue potentials of racino are better understood.

Other senators, too, questioned charitable gambling revenue estimates, criticism Rosen felt unfounded.

Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Claire Robling (left), R-Jordan, voted to include racino in the stadium bill.

Still, Rosen, speaking after the finance committee hearing, said she felt very good about her legislation.

“I don’t know if it gets to the (Senate) floor,” said Rosen of Nienow’s racino provision.

Other provisions to the Senate stadium bill have appeared and disappeared quickly.

One such provision gone from the bill within a day was an amendment providing debt relief to the city of St. Paul for the Saint Paul River Centre.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman argued his city doesn’t expect dollar-for-dollar equity in state assistance between the city of Minneapolis and the city of St. Paul, but argued the Twin Cities are that — Twin Cities.

“If you feed one twin and starve the other, the one will die,” said Coleman.

But the amendment was voted out of the bill.

Not that other provisions weren’t sharply debated in finance committee.

Both Nienow and Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, were troubled by a provision in the bill providing the city of Minneapolis an exemption to its city charter in regard to spending and the need for voter approval.

Minnesota Vikings' (left to right) center John Sullivan, linebacker Chad Greenway and runningback Adrian Peterson spent about an hour at the State Capitol on April 25, meeting lawmakers, fans, and visiting Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton. The trio spoke in support of a new Vikings stadium.

Nienow, who as other lawmakers views the charter exemption an affront to Minneapolis voters who overwhelmingly voted to require a referendum on city spending on sports’ stadiums in excess of $10 million, scathingly argued that by supporting the exemption lawmakers were basically telling Minneapolis voters, “Screw you!”

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak has argued that the referendum provision isn’t even applicable to the city’s Vikings’ stadium situation as the state controls the revenue streams of the local city sales taxes, not the city.

City officials in committee argued the exemption  instead was needed for the city to make improvements on the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Speaking after the hearing, Nienow argued the distinctions were so much sophistry.

But Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, argued that removing the exemption would basically kill the stadium bill.

On an 8 to 5 vote, the attempt to remove the exemption failed.

Vikings’ stadium front man Lester Bagley indicated after the finance committee hearing that the team had no position in regard to the use of charitable gambling or racino.

“We’ve always been open to it,” said Bagley of racino.

But Bagley indicated concerns that the stadium bill was “getting heavy” with provisions.

“Getting complicated,” he said.

Rosen anticipates her stadium bill hitting the Senate floor on Friday, April 27.

Her stadium bill passed the Senate Finance Committee on a 9 to 5 vote.

He knew the bill had enough votes to pass the committee, said Nienow after the vote.

Nienow, who voted against the bill as did Hann, said he felt he was doing his job as a lawmaker in trying to improve the bill.

“I’ll probably get some heat for that (the racino amendment) from people who don’t like gambling,” he said.

For those who support racino, this is their moment, he explained.

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