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Sports betting tries its odds at Minnesota Capitol

Lawmakers returned to the Minnesota State Capitol Jan. 8, 2019, for the reconvening of the Legislature. Michael Brun / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — A pair of Republican lawmakers Wednesday, Feb. 13, made the first pitch for legalized sports betting following last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that opened the door to the idea.

It looks like a long shot for now because there’s no agreement from the state’s Indian tribes.

But it also looks like those who support legalizing the practice will keep pushing.

Here’s the landscape:

What's being proposed

Wednesday’s proposal by state Reps. Pat Garofalo, of Farmington, and Nick Zerwas, of Elk River, would do this:

  • Allow gambling on professional and college sports only at Native American casinos.
  • Set up a sports betting board that would determine the finer points of exactly what types of bets on which sports would be allowed.
  • Levy a tax of .5 percent on the “handle,” or total amount wagered.

Here’s what it wouldn’t do:

  • Allow sports betting online or via mobile phones. It’s not clear this type of sports betting would be legal
  • Allow sports betting at horse tracks, where gambling on card games and horse races are allowed.

Here’s why Garofalo and Zerwas say the state should do this: People are gambling on sports anyway, often using unregulated, offshore platforms. They have little recourse when they’re cheated, and taxpayers are spending money trying to restrict such betting. Instead, they argue, we should make it legal and regulate it. Proceeds from the tax could go to help address gambling addiction.

There are other proposals floating around the Capitol that would allow mobile and online gambling, or gambling outside tribal control, although they haven’t been formally introduced.

Tribes are crucial

The tribes are not on board with any of it — and that’s important.

Currently, Minnesota’s Native American nations enjoy dominion over most forms of for-profit gambling in Minnesota. That’s the result of a contract negotiated between the nations and then-Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III in the early 1990s. It’s powerful, and it would need to be changed to allow sports betting.

In recent years, the tribes' basic position is that they’re opposed to any expansion of gambling in the state.

That hasn’t changed, although the tribes did not respond publicly to Wednesday’s proposal.

Garofalo said he’s been in talks with tribal officials, but, he said, “We’ve taken this as far as we can go privately.”

In other words, the’re at an impasse. Garofalo and Zerwas said they hope their proposal addresses enough of the tribal concerns.

What are the politics?

There’s both bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition to this.

Some Republicans and Democrats are inherently uncomfortable with gambling for a variety of reasons, ranging from viewing it as a vice to seeing it as a predatory practice that disproportionately harms the poor.

There are supporters from both parties who consider it pragmatic and responsible to legalize an alluring form of entertainment that’s happening underground anyway.

For years, American Indian interests were associated with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party more than the Republican Party. It’s not so clear-cut any more. What hasn’t changed is that the tribes carry formidable influence at the Capitol. Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan is a citizen of White Earth Nation of Ojibwe.

Garofalo himself acknowledged that without tribal support, his plan likely wouldn’t become law.