Wednesday, March 09, 2005

COLUMN -- Behind the curtain of 'casino theater'

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:44 AM |  

Wednesday Mar. 09, 2005

Witnessing the theater of government gives one an appreciation for the real power of the state. Reading the news is different from watching news being made. It is the difference between dinner at Kincaid's and watching a cow being butchered.

That said, last week I attended a press conference at which the governor made news.

Using stagecraft and seductive messaging, Gov. Tim Pawlenty served up a deliciously persuasive perception of what is yet another bit of greedy government flummery — his proposed casino partnership with the northern Minnesota Ojibwe bands.
What I witnessed was high theater.

The governor's announcement was made in the regally ornate Governor's Reception Room. Soaring ceilings, deeply stained wooden paneling, heavy draperies and thick carpets speak to the traditional trappings of power.

Coincidently, above and behind the podium hung an ornately framed mural commemorating a 19th century state-tribal treaty.

In preparation for the governor's entrance, his minions arranged his supporting cast from the northern Ojibwe bands, the Legislature and the gaggle of agencies that stand to benefit from this 21st century state-tribal treaty. Propped next to the potted plants behind the podium, they acted a cross between a Greek Chorus and your average high school "B" choir.

Enter the governor.

The bevy of photographers crowded into the room flashed away, faithfully capturing exactly the image that the governor's stage managers had so craftily manipulated.
In his presentation, Pawlenty skillfully combined something a lot people think is very, very bad — an extension of gambling — with something that a lot of people think is very, very, good — helping the poorer Minnesota tribes.

He couched his message in terms of "fairness" — the fairness of redistribution of gaming wealth to a blighted region, the fairness of cutting government a piece of the action.

His strategy worked.

His message has his critics flummoxed.***

The Pioneer Press editorial page remains steadfast against any gaming expansion, but admits that "as a business decision, the appeal to the bands makes fiscal and moral sense."

A group of Minnesota senators that opposes the governor's proposal chose as a spokesman Sen. William Belanger, R-Bloomington, who while opposing extension of casino gambling, supports the "racino" proposal for slot machines at Canterbury Downs.

And therein lies the problem. The governor has focus; his critics do not.
Using the theater of his office, the governor has defined the debate as a contest between the moral high ground of "fairness," plus demonstrable fiscal benefits, vs. the speculative social costs of gambling.

The governor is running a winnable bluff.

Given immediate gratification with only "potential" consequences somewhere in the future, most people will order the dessert, charge up their credit cards, run the yellow light and take the tribal $200 million up-front money as part of the governor's deal.

And that's what the governor is counting on.
So, here we go again.

Like the recently defeated statewide smoking ban, Pawlenty's proposal rests on the notion that government can butcher the principle of limited authority whenever it darn well pleases in pursuit of some perceived collective good.

The deceptively justified smoking ban was brought down when the issue focused on the legitimacy of government authority to pass such a bill.

So will the state-tribal casino proposal fall — but only if its opponents resist getting sucked into the governor's bluff.

Opponents of the Pawlenty proposal must stick to the principle that a state-tribal partnership, even for the collective good, is outside the legitimate authority of the state.

Government should not enter into competition with private businesses for the entertainment dollars of Minnesotans.

A state-tribal casino would not just compete with other tribal casinos; it would compete with private restaurants, private hotels and other private forms of entertainment.

Ironically, the state could pass a smoking ban for private bars and restaurants that compete with a state-tribal casino in which a smoking ban could not be enforced.
Do we start to see the problem?

The prologue is complete. Act I of "Casino Theater" is under way. The governor's deception is in place. Will casino opponents fall into his well-laid trap? Stay tuned.

*** UPDATE: As a matter of policy, the Pioneer Press does not mention the Star Tribune on its editorial page. The Star Tribune has, nonetheless commented on Pawlenty's proposal, and one must assume has some influence in the Twin Cities. One would expect the Star Tribune to be a vocal critic of all things Pawlenty, as I noted here. I also mentioned it my column, but by policy the following was edited out of the coulmn --
One can almost feel the angst in an editorial from across the river that struggles with opposing a plan that benefits the Northern Tribes or supporting a Republican-sponsored extension of gambling.