Minnesota Racing Commission, Lawmakers at Odds over HHR Gambling

On Monday, a Minnesota legislative panel convened to discuss the prohibition of historical horse racing (HHR). It was a move made swiftly in response to the Minnesota Racing Commission's recent but controversial decision to approve casino-style gaming.

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Minnesota Representative Zack Stephenson voiced his opposition to the Racing Commission's decision, deeming it unlawful. Therefore, he introduced a bill aimed at reversing this action during the House Commerce Committee meeting.

As the legislative session reaches its midpoint, tension escalates over the legalization of mobile sports betting. The Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party (DFL) leaders are pushing bills that propose granting exclusive rights to the state's tribal nations to collaborate with gambling platforms, enabling Minnesotans to engage in 24/7 phone betting.

However, this proposal faces resistance from the state's tracks, fearing revenue loss and potential closure. Republican supporters stand firm, insisting on legislation that safeguards the interests of these tracks, with the recent approval of HHR by the Racing Commission further complicating the discourse.

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The tracks argue that HHR could generate significant revenue, ensuring their sustainability and supporting live-racing purses. Prior to the commission's decision, legalized HHR was not a prominent topic at the Capitol. To mitigate concerns about the tracks' financial viability, major sports betting bills propose direct subsidies, with the House and Senate bills allocating $625,000 and $3 million annually, respectively.

The debate surrounding HHR and mobile sports betting gained traction following the Racing Commission's endorsement. DFL members expressed outrage, alleging that HHR constitutes illegal video slot machines, infringing upon the exclusive rights of tribal nations to offer casino gambling in Minnesota. They contend that the commission overstepped its authority with its decision.

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Supporters of the racing industry assert that Stephenson's bill seeks to prohibit existing stadium-style gambling, such as blackjack, which enable individuals to participate in private betting booths while observing a dealer via video. Stephenson emphasized that his bill aims to close loopholes in existing legislation that allow for such table games, particularly concerning the ambiguous definition of a "table" in state law.

Traditional table games are constrained by the number of players they can accommodate simultaneously, whereas digital technology permits multiple hands to be played at once, significantly increasing the potential volume of gameplay. Stephenson argued that this technological advancement renders previous limitations on the number of tables meaningless.

Despite Stephenson's assurance that his bill won't impact live horse racing betting in Minnesota, concerns persist about its potential repercussions on establishments like Running Aces, which could face significant revenue losses, jeopardizing its operations. At the core of the issue lies the challenge of garnering bipartisan support for the legalization of mobile sports betting, with Democrats aligned closely with tribal nations and Republicans advocating for support to be extended to the tracks.

The House panel's deliberations are expected to pave the way for further discussion on Stephenson's bill within the House Ways and Means Committee. Last week's decision by the Racing Commission saw Julie Idelkope as the sole member voting against HHR legalization, while the remaining commissioners, apart from Chairwoman Camille McArdle, voted in favor. Notably, Commissioners Dan Erhart and Roy Johnson were absent from the vote.


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