Saturday, March 05, 2005

Pawlenty's casino proposal -- here we go again

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:07 PM |  

I’ll be writing on Governor Pawlenty’s casino proposal in my Pioneer Press column this Wednesday. I talked my way into the governor’s press conference on Friday and the opposition senators' response. Suffice it to say, witnessing the theater of government gives one a better appreciation for the power of government than simply reading about the details of a proposal in the daily press.

Case in point is this editorial in the Star Tribune under the headline “The gov’s casino/Proceed with caution.”

Unlike the usual line-in-the-sand in-your-face editorials of the Star Tribune, this reads more like the usual institutional fare in the Pioneer Press -- very non-committal, let’s go slow, let’s proceed with caution, let’s take a good hard look, yada, yada, yada. You can almost feel the angst of the Strib editorial writer faced with either opposing a plan that benefits the northern tribes or supporting a Republican-sponsored extension of gambling.
Casino gambling on tribal lands has been, for a few tribes, the best (and, they might say, only) economic development tool available to them in modern America. But for a majority of Minnesota's native people, it's been a cruelly defective tool. In fact, it's been worse: It has become an excuse for other Minnesotans to turn their backs on reservation poverty, out of the mistaken belief that all Indians are now rich.

Making that tool work for all of Minnesota's tribes is in keeping with the resource equalization role state government has long played for rich and poor school districts, cities and counties. That legitimate state function is at the heart of the state/northern tribes partnership.

But close to its heart is the $200 million hole in Pawlenty's proposed 2006-07 budget that he looks to a casino license to fill. The Republican governor's appetite is keen for casino proceeds that he can pump into the general fund while claiming that they did not derive from new taxes, which he has forsworn.

Legislators should try to suppress that gubernatorial appetite, as a bipartisan group of state senators vowed to do Friday. Gambling's easy money is not as defensible a foundation for the services government provides as is general taxation. But Minnesotans should know that since fiscal 1991, the state lottery has sent a share of its proceeds to the general fund, with little ill effect.

Other qualms deserve heed. Legislators should resist pressure to turn the state/northern tribes partnership into the first of many new casinos. They should strive to keep gambling under Minnesota's control, rather than opening the door to Las Vegas interests that have no stake in this state's quality of life. They should assure help for those with gambling addictions. That's a lot to take on with nearly half of the 2005 legislative session spent. Pawlenty's tax pledge may make this a rush job for him, but legislators should proceed with caution.
In other words, the Strib is hedging its bets on this one. The paper that offers definitive views on Hardee’s Monster Burger and how bar and restaurant owners should run their businesses can’t bring itself to have an opinion on an issue that has been hanging in the background since Pawlenty made it clear that one way or another the mob at the state capitol was going to move in a grab a piece of the gambling action.

Pawlenty is already winning. Coming from the Strib, a wimpy editorial is as good as an endorsement. At the very least it validates Pawlenty’s strategy of coupling 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.

The governor ties “fairness” with “no new taxes” and closing the budget gap (with "no new taxes") and he sends his most vocal media critic into an apoplectic fit of neutrality. That’s what he’s counting on.

As long as the governor can make this a contest between the moral high ground of "fainess" and demonstrable benefits versus speculative social costs, he’s got a winner. Given that choice, people have a natural tendency to gamble. They'll grab the benefit believing that whatever downside, it won’t happen to them.

And the Strib falls into this trap. Reread this paragraph from the editorial.
Making that tool work for all of Minnesota's tribes is in keeping with the resource equalization role state government has long played for rich and poor school districts, cities and counties. That legitimate state function is at the heart of the state/northern tribes partnership.
Sorry, but “resource equalization” is not a legitimate state function. Therein lies the rub. The objective of resource equalizations is appealing, but not a legitimate goal. The state entering into competition with private business for the entertainment dollar is not a legitimate tactic. That’s the fundamental issue and all the economic analysis is so much noise.

In other words, the issue-oriented Strib has no consistent principle of government to apply to pass judgment on the governor's proposal.

In that regard, Pawlenty’s casino proposal is not unlike the recently defeated statewide smoking ban proposal. Initially the debate was about "self-evident" health dangers and obvious offensive qualities of secondhand smoke versus a potential negative impact on some private businesses. Without critical examination, the debate is a clear smoking ban winner.

But ultimately as the debate shifted to a debate about fundamental rights and the legitimate authority of government to interfere with private property owners business decisions, initial issues became less significant to the debate. And the smoking ban failed.

Defeating the governor’s casino proposal is the same debate. The sooner opponents stop beating their heads against the “fairness” argument and “social cost” issue and focus on the fact that the state government has no legitimate authority nor ethical authority to enter into competition with private business, the better the chances of defeating this bill.