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Gambling money part of the budget mix

ST. PAUL -- Some legislators are considering gambling revenue to balance the Minnesota budget, one of the few surprises Thursday as the 2010 legislation session began.

Legislators' major job is to plug a $1.2 billion hole in the state budget, a budget with nearly a year and a half left. They also need to look at a much bigger deficit that is likely in the next budget.

The current two-year budget is $30 billion, down $4 billion from the last budget.

Lawmakers came into their session, which must end no later than May 17, with a the major divide being simple: Democrats want a combination of budget cuts and tax increases to balance the budget, while Republicans tend to want to balance the budget just by cutting.

On Thursday, a different scenario surfaced, to add gambling to the state's revenue pot.

"Gaming bills are going to get a real look this year, and they should," Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said.

Juhnke would not say much about the pro-gambling movement, but said a plan could surface in two or three weeks. He said it would include adding a casino to a Twin Cities horse racing track, known as a racino, and video pull tabs in Minnesota bars.

The two changes could bring in $875 million or more a year, Juhnke said.

The key for gambling to succeed in this year's session, he added, is to spend gambling revenue on a wide variety of areas, such as early-childhood education, a Vikings football stadium and agriculture. If the revenue is spread wide enough, the concept could attract more legislators' votes.

"We are only a handful of votes off in both bodies," Juhnke said of the House and Senate.

Juhnke's leader, however, did not think the gambling proposal has a chance.

While House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, promised that the proposal would get a hearing, he said that gambling is not a reliable revenue source.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty mentioned in a Wednesday radio interview that one potential stadium funding source is a lottery game, but stopped short of endorsing the idea.

One of Pawlenty's most controversial moves has been delaying state payments to schools, which drew lots of comments on the session's opening day.

Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said that delaying school payments punishes districts that are doing the right thing.

"I'm concerned that this action targets Minnesota school districts that are fiscally responsible and were able to maintain some savings," Sieben said. "Now, with their state aid payments being withheld, some of these districts may be forced into short-term borrowing to pay their own bills."

Davis and Tellijohn report for the Woodbury Bulletin and other Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.