Gambling witha people’s future

Pawlenty’s plan might be popular, but it will also harm the American Indian community.

A recent Star Tribune poll gave Gov. Tim Pawlenty a needed boost to build a metro-area casino and tap into American Indian tribes’ gambling revenues. The poll showed more than 60 percent of those polled support both initiatives.

Public support might bring Pawlenty’s plan one step closer to reality, but it shouldn’t fool anyone into thinking the plan is good for Minnesota’s sizable American Indian population. The state’s American Indian tribes are on the losing end of a plan whose only saving grace is its political popularity. Under the proposal, the state would take in a one-time licensing fee of $200 million and annual revenue of approximately $114 million from a metro-area casino jointly owned by the state and participating tribes.

Relinquishing their monopoly and sharing profits will undercut tribes’ efforts to develop their economies. Gambling and hotel revenue has significantly improved their standard of living during the last decade. That money would accomplish even more, if it were equitably distributed and geared toward educational and health investments that most tribes still badly need.

In that way, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe is one step ahead of Pawlenty. The tribe’s chief executive, Melanie Benjamin, has proposed a $50 million endowment funded by the state’s wealthy tribes and aimed at helping the most impoverished tribes, such as the White Earth, Leech Lake and Red Lake Ojibwe of northern Minnesota. Minnesota’s American Indian community suffers from the misperception that its exclusive right to gambling has provided little benefit for the state as a whole.

That might explain Pawlenty’s zealous bid to tap tribal gambling revenue and the widespread public support it enjoys. But no view could be further from the truth. The poverty still plaguing many American Indians is a moral stain on an otherwise first-class state. Removing it should be a priority. Raiding Minnesota’s tribes is a political no-brainer for the state’s most ambitious politician, but it’s also a sure-fire way to pull the rug out from under a community just beginning to realize its potential.