Minnesota sports betting bill runs afoul of partisan rancor over state senator’s burglary arrest

Published 5:31 pm Friday, May 3, 2024

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ST. PAUL — A bill to legalize sports betting in Minnesota is in serious trouble, running afoul of the partisan rancor over the arrest of a state senator on a felony burglary charge.

One of the lead authors, Democratic Sen. Matt Klein, of Mendota Heights, isn’t ready to call sports betting dead. But he said in an interview Thursday that he’s less optimistic than before Democratic Sen. Nicole Mitchell, of Woodbury, was charged last week with breaking into her estranged stepmother’s home.

In the House, a Republican sports betting advocate who’s considered a key to any bipartisan deal, Rep. Pat Garofalo, of Farmington, said he thinks the bill is effectively dead for the year, though it came closer than ever before.

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“It’s like in classic Minnesota sports fashion, we were up by a touchdown with two minutes left, and we had the ball, and we turned it over,” Garofalo said in an interview. “The bad guys scored and it went into overtime. We missed a field goal and now it’s, you know, it’s done.”

Mitchell told police she broke in because her stepmother refused to give her items of sentimental value from her late father including his ashes, according to the criminal complaint. Senate Democrats have excluded her from caucus meetings and taken her off her committees but have not publicly asked her to quit. Her attorney has said she deserves due process and won’t resign.

Mitchell resumed voting this week on the Senate floor — where Democrats hold just a one-seat majority — even on votes that affect her fate. Senate Republicans have forced hours of debate on unsuccessful attempts to remove her, slowing down the pace of legislation with less than three weeks left in the session. An ethics panel will consider a GOP complaint against her Tuesday.

Sports betting has grown rapidly to at least 38 states in recent years but the odds for many more states joining them appear low this year because of political resistance and the sometimes competing financial interests of existing gambling operators. Sports betting supporters in Missouri submitted petitions Thursday to try to put the issue on the November ballot, but proposals have stalled in Alabama and Georgia.

Legalizing sports betting in Minnesota would take bipartisan support because of the narrow Democratic majorities in both chambers. Some Republicans and Democrats alike would vote against it no matter what. The bills under discussion would put sports wagering under control of the state’s Native American tribes, at both their brick-and-mortar casinos and off the reservations via lucrative mobile apps. Major unresolved sticking points include whether the state’s two horse racing tracks and charitable gaming operations should get any piece of the action.

“It’s always been a bipartisan bill. And bipartisan has taken a bit of a hit here in the last couple of weeks,” Klein said.

Klein said he stood by remarks he first made Wednesday to Minnesota Public Radio that he would have put the odds of passage at 60% to 70% a month ago, but he now puts them at 20%.

Democratic Gov. Tim Walz told reporters that he’d sign a sports betting bill if it gets to his desk, but that Klein is probably right.

Kline said he’s still talking with Republican Sen. Jeremy Miller, of Winona, who agreed that the dispute over Mitchell’s continued presence in the Senate makes things more complicated.

“I still think there’s a path. I think it’s a narrow path. But if we can get the stakeholders together and work towards an agreement, there’s still an opportunity to get it done,” Miller said. “But every day that goes by it is less and less likely.”

The lead House sponsor, Democratic Rep. Zack Stephenson, of Coon Rapids, said he still puts the odds at 50%.

“This is always going to be a tough bill to get together under the best of circumstances, and certainly we have a lot of challenges right now,” Stephenson said

Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, told reporters the House will probably pass it in the remaining days of the session without focusing too much on what can or can’t get through the Senate.

“We can send something over and maybe that helps break the logjam,” Hortman said.