Minnesota Legislature Approves HHR Ban, Skips Sports Betting

May 20, 2024
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Minnesota’s legislative session ended Sunday night with legislators failing to adopt legislation that would legalize sports betting, but agreeing to a bill that would prohibit racetracks from offering historical horseracing.
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Minnesota’s legislative session ended Sunday night (May 19) with legislators failing to adopt legislation that would legalize sports betting, but agreeing to a bill that would prohibit racetracks from offering historical horseracing.

Despite late efforts to reach an agreement among stakeholders in the final days of the session that reportedly included the framework of a deal, a sports-betting proposal never came to the floor in either chamber in the waning days and was not included in a controversial major omnibus package as the session drew to a close.

“We're going to come up just short on the sports-betting bill this year,” said Representative Zack Stephenson, who sponsored sports-betting legislation in the House, on Twitter Sunday night. “But in the last few days we proved that we could find a deal that all the major stakeholders could live with.  Tribes, tracks, charities ... that's meaningful progress that can be a foundation for the future.”

One of the biggest issues that supporters faced in getting legislation across the finish line was the clock, as legislation was required to be voted on by 11:59pm local time Sunday night, and in recent days, partisan battles on unrelated issues soaked up significant portions of the remaining time, including an eight-hour filibuster on Wednesday when sports-betting legislation was the next item on the calendar to be considered.

However, legislators did make time for one other notable gaming issue, which was the Minnesota Racing Commission’s decision last month to allow two state racetracks to add historical horseracing machines to their offerings.

The decision, which is set to become effective Tuesday (May 21) would have allowed each racetrack to install up to 500 historical horseracing machines.

Almost immediately, several legislators, including Stephenson, took exception to the decision and filed a bill to supersede the decision and explicitly prohibit historical horseracing offerings under state law.

Opponents of the decision included the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, who called it “an extreme violation of legislative authority” and pointed to findings from the state’s Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division that it found the machines to be a gambling device.

“It’s my opinion and the opinion of others that the decision of the racing commission was not in keeping with Minnesota statute and it’s important to reverse it before it goes into effect,” Stephenson said Friday during a House committee hearing.

“I think the evidence shows that they very clearly are [gambling devices or slot machines], and it’s my sense that they are a violation of our agreements with the indigenous tribes,” added Senator Matt Klein, who sponsored the legislation on the Senate side, on the Senate floor Sunday.

“They were approved as legitimate devices at the two tracks earlier this spring by the unelected racing commission, so this is as much about honoring our commitment to tribal exclusivity over wagering as it is about asserting legislative primacy and our authority to set what standards there are for wagering in the state of Minnesota.”

The language was at one point bundled with sports-betting legislation and other gaming issues, but was advanced as part of a separate bill Friday, Senate File 2219.

“As part of the bipartisan discussions around sports betting and discussion among stakeholders, there was emerging consensus that maybe the HHR ban should travel separately and that might make it easier to reach agreement on the sports betting bill,” Stephenson said during the Friday hearing. “So we are trying to be accommodating in that respect.”

Opponents said the move was simply picking winners and losers by the legislature.

“I support my track, and I support my tribal casino, both are huge employers in my district,” said Senator Eric Pratt. “And I want to be able to protect the jobs at both and I don’t want to put one at an advantage over the other."

“I want them to be able to compete fairly with each other, and right now they have very different games that they’re able to play.”

The House voted 71-58 to pass the bill early Sunday morning, and the Senate followed later in the day with a 36-25 vote in favor.

The bill will now require the signature of Governor Tim Walz. A spokeswoman for Walz told the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune newspaper shortly after the decision in April that Walz was “frustrated by the approach the commission took.”

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