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Don Davis, Forum News Service, Published March 24 2012

Minnesota Political Notebook: White Earth plan little heard, but still around

ST. PAUL - Minnesota legislators talk little about a White Earth Band casino proposal to increase state revenue, but the band leader says she will continue to push it as lawmakers struggle to find money for everything from a stadium to schools.

To answer one of the critics’ nagging questions, White Earth hired former Minnesota Chief Justice Eric Magnuson to look into constitutionality of the state allowing the northwestern Minnesota band to build a Twin Cities casino. He opined: “Legislation authorizing casino gaming, including slot machines, would survive a challenge based on the Minnesota Constitution.”

But even Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor, who continues to push hard for a new casino, admits the plan likely would land in court, Nathan Bowe of Detroit Lakes Newspapers reports.

The small Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Band, operator of the state’s biggest casino, Mystic Lake, probably would be joined by other tribes in fighting the White Earth proposal.

“They’re shackled by money, power and greed, and you can quote me on that,” Vizenor said. “But White Earth is doing the right thing for our people and the state of Minnesota; the resistance and pressure and attacks will not thwart me.”

Besides other casino-owning tribes, conservatives who oppose gambling could challenge the plan in court.

Gov. Mark Dayton has said he opposes using casino revenue, including allowing slot machines at horse-racing tracks, for stadium construction funding because a court case could delay the money for five years.

Magnuson wrote there has “never been a general prohibition on gambling in either the Minnesota Constitution or state statutes.” But, he added, Minnesota courts have not ruled on questions about the plan to allow the state lottery to extend its oversight to casinos.

“It is our opinion that the state could, if it so chooses, define casino gaming as a lottery to avoid any constitutional issue of whether such gaming is, in fact, a lottery as that term is used in the Constitution,” Magnuson wrote.

Vizenor pointed out that state and tribal governments have worked together on casinos in Wisconsin, Michigan and other states.

White Earth says the state could received up to $1 billion in the first five years of a Twin Cities casino operation.

Franken versus carp

U.S. Sen. Al Franken is pressing key senators to find a way to fight an Asian carp invasion that threatens Minnesota waters.

He wants congressional approval to expand the Army Corps of Engineers’ authority, so it can take emergency action to erect barriers and take other measures to fight the fish, which can eat so much that native species lose their food sources.

The Minnesota Democrat sent a letter to senators in both parties asking for the change, saying Asian carp threatens the $7 billion Great Lakes fishing industry and thousands of jobs in the region.

Minnesota officials have plans to fight the carp’s northward spread, but they depend on the Corps putting fish barriers in locks they control. Corps officials in Minnesota support the idea, but it appears there is too much red tape to do the work this year.

Too optimistic?

Optimism may be good, but state Rep. Morrie Lanning says that is not the case when it comes to public employee pension funds.

The Moorhead Republican sponsors a bill that likely will receive a full House vote soon to reduce that optimism, in the hope that there will be money to pay future pensions.

The state’s pension plan has expected a return of 8.5 percent, the highest in the country. But in the past decade, the return on investments has been lucky to hit 5.9 percent.

Lanning said that means pensions are being paid out at rates higher than the state can maintain.

Lanning’s bill, and a similar one in the Senate, would scale back the expectations, and thus could lower pensions for future public employees. However, he said, current and former public employees’ pensions would not drop.

Without the change, Lanning said, the state runs the risk of making promises it cannot keep.

Courts go electronic

Eight Minnesota courts will serve as pilot sites for an initiative allowing court documents to be filed electronically rather than by paper.

State Court Administrator Sue K. Dosal said the eCourtMN initiative is “the most comprehensive work re-engineering effort ever undertaken by the judicial branch.”

The plan is for all courts to eventually move to electronic filing in new cases, as well as putting closed and active cases on the computer.

The pilot courts are in Cass, Clay, Cook-Lake, Dakota, Faribault, Kandiyohi, Morrison and Washington counties. Ramsey and Hennepin county courts already handle some cases electronically.


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Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.