DFL says 2023 sports betting push will put Minnesota's tribes in charge

It's become a perennial question around the state Capitol: will this be the year that sports betting becomes legal in Minnesota?

Democrats who will take full control of the Legislature in January say any renewed effort will put Minnesota's Native American tribes in charge of sports betting operations. In 2022, the House passed a pro-tribes bill, but it stalled in the Senate over a philosophical disagreement on whether racetracks should get a cut of the action.

The House's lead author, state Rep. Zack Stephenson, said he'll offer a bill that's very similar to the one that passed the House a year ago. (Because it's a new Legislature, any bill that passed one chamber but not the other must start at square one.) Meanwhile, two leading sports betting supporters are leaving the Senate, meaning new lawmakers will need to pick up the issue.

"We came so close last year and I do think we have a great chance to get it across the finish line this year," Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, said in an interview. He said the House likely has enough votes, but a large number of incoming members in the new Senate DFL majority adds uncertainty.

Stephenson's bill includes so-called tribal exclusivity, meaning that tribes would get the only licenses to put sportsbooks in their casinos and to partner with mobile app vendors.

"I think that our best bet for such a big expansion of gaming in Minnesota is to stick with our trusted partners," Stephenson said. "The tribes have been operating gaming in Minnesota for longer, more successfully, and at a more sophisticated level that any other entity. They’re the most regulated gaming operator in the state of Minnesota."

Officially, the stance of Minnesota's 11 Native American tribes hasn't changed since the failure of the 2022 legislation, said Nate Dybvig, a spokesman for the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association.

Tribal leaders are scheduled to meet next week to set their legislative agenda for the coming year, he said.

This spring, Republicans who then controlled the Senate insisted that two racetracks, Running Aces and Canterbury Park, should get licenses. Other lawmakers favor expanding the field to include Minnesota sports teams.

State Sen. Karla Bigham, one of the Legislature's leading supporters of sports betting who is leaving the Capitol next month, said the public -- and the tribes -- will need to increase pressure on lawmakers. Otherwise, the issue could get lost in a year with many other priorities, she said.

"The public and the tribes have to convince the Democrats that this is a priority that is competing with a lot of needs -- education, infrastructure, environment, safe communities, health care," Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, said in an interview.

More than 30 states have now legalized some form of sports betting. Against that backdrop, The New York Times conducted an investigation into problems facing some of those states and found that projections of increased tax revenue often proved overly optimistic. Some states didn't have adequate protections against problem gaming, the newspaper found.

Minnesota lawmakers say there's much to learn from states where sports betting is legal. The House bill devoted nearly 50% of tax revenue to addressing compulsive gambling, after a $5 million cut for the Department of Public Safety for regulatory efforts.

Minnesota lawmakers have long shelved the issue because of tribal opposition. But Native American tribes expressed openness to legalized sports betting a year ago, while demanding exclusivity.

Bigham said she expects the tribes will become more vocal in their support as they seek to expand their business model beyond slot machines and table games.

"This is a business, right? And the consumer is changing," she said. "The consumer now does not just want slot machines and playing blackjack. They want an experience."