Bill renews debate over gambling expansion

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ST. PAUL — A bill aimed at relieving financial strain on Minnesota horse racing tracks hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic has renewed debate over the expansion of gambling in the state.

The version of the bill first introduced by state Rep. Brad Tabke would have allowed Minnesotans to wager on in-state races by phone and computer through 2021. But that provision was left out of the version approved by a Minnesota House committee on Thursday, May 6 at the urging of the tribal gaming lobby.

Track operators, meanwhile, might have to hold races even if spectators can't attend them because of Minnesota's stay at home order.

The controversy echoes that which surrounded a bill introduced last year to legalize sports betting in Minnesota. The Minnesota Indian Gaming Association objected to that proposal as well, having long been against the expansion of gambling outside of state tribal reservations.

Through a spokesperson, the association said the horse racing bill in its original form was "exactly the sort of gambling expansion which we have consistently opposed. " It remains legal in Minnesota to bet remotely on out-of-state races.


But Tabke, D-Shakopee, told House Commerce Committee members Thursday that the version of House Bill 4597 they ultimately approved will still lessen the economic blow dealt to the state's racetracks. If enacted, it would allow track operators to hold fewer racing days than they are currently required to in order to maintain their licenses.

It would also grant them the temporary flexibility to put purse money toward capital projects, as well as increase the amount of money they can collect from advance deposit wagering programs, which allow gamblers to bet by phone and computer on out-of-state events.

"This will absolutely help the horse racing industry in Minnesota as well as the race tracks," Tabke said.

Race track industry officials testified in support of the bill at Wednesday's but did express dismay at its omission of the short-term, in-state online betting provision. Several lawmakers called for it to be added back in, Rep. Pat Garofalo — author of the 2019 sports betting bill — among them.

"There’s a track record here of this issue going back to 10 years ago," Garofalo, R-Farmington, said Thursday.

Others said the bill represents the best compromise that was possible in a time-frame narrowed by the upcoming race season. It still passed on to another committee on Thursday.

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