MINNEAPOLIS -- With new schools, jobs and clinics, life on the reservation was improving. But just when most of Minnesota's American Indian bands have started to feel the benefits of casino revenues, some lawmakers say it's time to split the pot.
Proposals to build casinos have been floating in the Legislature as a way to fight the state deficit and fund new pro-sports stadiums. But to do that, lawmakers would have to break a compact with the state's 11 tribes not to expand gambling in Minnesota.
"Tribes are just beginning in some places to rise to the middle class. They're just climbing out of poverty," said Tadd Johnson, of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. "It always seems that when tribes start doing well at something that's the point when another government feels they have to take it away."
The 18 casinos in Minnesota are all owned by Indian tribes, operating under federal permits and agreements with the state. Private casinos are banned under a provision in the state constitution.
The casino debate took a new twist last week when Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe threw his support behind a bill to build a casino that would split profits between Minnesota tribes and the state. A proposed site is the Mall of America in Bloomington.
The state-tribe casino has the support of Minnesota's two largest tribes, Red Lake and White Earth, which combined have 30,400 band members and would receive the largest profit shares.
They haven't cashed in on gambling due to the remote location of their reservations, in the northwestern part of the state. "It would bring some degree of equity," Red Lake Chairman Bobby Whitefeather said.
Prairie Island Mdewakanton Community, which runs Treasure Island Casino in Red Wing, said it appreciates the difficult circumstances Red Lake and White Earth face but it disagrees with any proposal that would hurt some tribes to help others.
Prairie Island said the gambling proposals threaten to drastically undercut its primary means of survival and many other people's livelihood, including its 1,700 employees.
The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe invests 100 percent of net revenues from its two casinos -- Northern Lights and Palace Casino & Hotel -- back into the tribe, hoping to jump-start its economy and provide basic services like education.
Casino revenues have allowed the Mille Lacs Band to build 160 homes, two schools, two clinics, four community centers, a tribal government center, a water tower, new roads and a full-time tribal police department.
It also has created 3,000 rural jobs with a minimum wage 26 percent higher than the state's.
"If a casino goes up in the Twin Cities, those jobs will likely go down," said Johnson, the band's attorney. "The Legislature is always trying to create good, rural jobs and we've created these."
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