Wednesday, November 10, 2004

COLUMN -- Governor's Brando impression isn't funny

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:49 AM |  

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

In his latest Godfather-like offer to Minnesota's tribal leaders, Gov. Tim Pawlenty exceeds the authority of state government to a degree that is blatantly defiant of any pretense of limited, principled government and free-market, private enterprise. The governor's predatory quest for revenue presents a challenge to every business, indeed every citizen, of Minnesota.

In his Oct. 12 letter to tribal leaders, Pawlenty bluntly uses the legislative authority of the state as a negotiating weapon. He specifically offers Minnesota tribes exclusive casino gambling rights in exchange for 25 percent of their revenue, about $350 million.

The governor's offer is nothing less than a quid pro quo exchange of legislation for money. Tit for tat. You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours. Pawlenty, plain and simple, is putting legislative authority up for sale.

"While I have stated a clear preference for keeping casino gaming within its current contours," writes the governor with the subtlety of Brando's Don Corleone, "I have also indicated a desire to obtain a fair financial contribution from tribal casino operators in exchange for some form of continued exclusivity of casino operations and perhaps other benefits."

Neither surprising nor coincidental is that among "other benefits" are means to enhance tribal gaming revenues (consequently government revenue). Astounding is the matter-of-fact manner in which the governor declares it an "other benefit" that agreement to his coercive offer eliminates the "annual battle at the Legislature and the tribes needing to spend significant resources and time trying to maintain the status quo."

In other words, the governor recognizes the need, under the status quo, for the tribes (read "all business owners") to genuflect at the altar of the Legislature and pay the Danegeld of "resources and time" for protection of a consistent business environment free of government meddling. He confirms that it is a better investment for the Native American casinos (read "all business owners") to wine and dine a legislator than put profit back into their communities (or businesses).

Let's be clear. Pawlenty has not framed the debate as whether or not now is the time to permit free-market casino gambling in Minnesota. That would be a legitimate debate to have. That action would not violate the current compacts with Minnesota tribes and might legitimately raise the state's tax revenue. However, creating a free-market gaming industry is not the ace up Pawlenty's sleeve.

Underlying the governor's "negotiation" with the tribes is the threat of a state-owned/privately run casino or a privately run casino under a revenue-sharing agreement with the state — notions that also run contrary to that of principled, limited government.

State government has no legitimate authority to compete with private business for Minnesotans' entertainment dollars.

The state should not go into competition with citizens who pay taxes that the state then uses to operate a casino that competes with those same taxpayers for customers.

Entertainment dollars spent at a state-owned casino are entertainment dollars not spent at privately owned restaurants, movie theaters, bowling alleys and sporting events. These and other businesses are certainly in competition with each other — and with tribal casinos — but none has the state's ability to tax its competitors, regulate its competitors or relax regulations on its own operations. None has the backing of the state treasury and more taxpayer dollars if it runs into trouble.

The state owning a casino is little different from the state opening a department store at the Mall of America that didn't charge sales tax and didn't pay state income tax and consequently used cost advantage to lure customers from private-sector competitors.

Pawlenty's high-handed use of government power must not go unchallenged by Minnesotans. The Legislature — a branch of government separate from the governor's office — must see beyond the revenue issue and resist turning itself into a profit center at the expense of principled government. The rest of us must insist that it do so.

In this regard, Pawlenty has provided a "make-a-choice" issue to decide what Minnesota is to be: A state where legislation follows principle; or a state where legislation is for sale. Our shame is, it's not an easy choice.