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Harry's Gang: If I had a seat in St. Paul...

If I were our representative in the Legislature, here’s how I would approach some of the issues they are considering in St. Paul this session.

For decades, “gaming” — which is a softer term meaning “gambling” — has been confined to the Native American casinos across the state, the Minnesota lottery, a couple of horse and dog tracks, and nonprofits using pull tabs and the like in local establishments.

Now, it’s no secret that all sorts of gambling has been going on privately forever. I’ve been to people’s houses who have set up small “casinos” with a slot machine or two (supposedly “just for fun,” but the money those machines take in goes somewhere), and people host poker nights with their friends all the time. The chances of those games getting raided by the police seem small, but I suppose if such private gambling got out of hand, law enforcement would step in. But legal gambling has expanded so much in Minnesota that private, illegal gambling hasn’t gotten out of control.

Still, I don’t like it. I’ll admit that I would oppose an expansion of legalized gambling in Minnesota for that very reason. I’ve heard all the arguments for expanding sports betting, and I guess they make sense, but I am still opposed. Why? Because I don’t see any real value to society by legalizing gambling.

But I’d probably be outvoted. Every time a gambling issue comes up to a popular vote, it seems to pass. Both horse-racing and the lottery referendums passed easily, but a proposal to allow off-track betting was narrowly defeated in 1994. And the Legislature seems to spend a good amount of time expanding the different ways to gamble, passing a lot of them. So, expect to see legalized sports betting sometime soon. I would vote against it.

The second issue I oppose is this proposal to eliminate the gas tax during the summer months. Frankly, I like the idea of reducing the gas tax. It’s dedicated to road construction, and while we have excellent roads in Minnesota, there’s just too much money flowing to too few people overseen by even fewer people. There is a real issue with accountability over our highway funds.

But a gas tax holiday is simply a gimmick, with no real benefit except good press for those who vote for it. That’s a lousy way to govern, in my opinion. Publicity stunts, hyperbole, and inflexibility to compromise are a politician’s vice, much worse than gambling. If a three-month suspension of the gas tax had some other real purpose, such as to stimulate tourism in a down economy or something like that, I’d consider it. But as it stands, it’s just a short-term, feel-good way to build up some politician’s chances of getting reelected this fall. If we really want to address the rising cost of fuel, we need a deeper and more meaningful conversation.

I feel the same way about the issue of no-knock warrants and police reform. Suddenly, in response to the tragic killing of an innocent person of color recently, bills affecting how police use no-knock warrants are being debated in the Legislature. To me, this is a simple issue: a tweak to the law already in place is all that’s needed. No-knock warrants are an important tool in police work, but should be used very rarely and only under extraordinary circumstances, when the intelligence is sufficient to ensure only the right suspects are targeted.

The biggest issue facing the Legislature this year is the projected $9.3 billion budget surplus. One side proposes spending it; the other side wants to cut taxes. I think both sides are pretty close to solving that problem. I’d support a proposal that would reduce some common taxes that affect us all, such as a gas tax reduction (unlikely to happen, but I’d support it) or a reduction in some motor vehicle fees. And I do support directing some of that surplus to necessary government services, such as law enforcement. But I believe it’s unwise to “return” any of the money through refunds. Refunds are gimmicks with very little public benefit, although they are very popular. Who wouldn’t like getting a free check for $400? I know people often say, “It’s our money. If we were overtaxed, pay it back.” I say, all tax money is our money; we’re a self-governed democracy. If we’re taxed too much, spend some of it on extra projects and use the rest to lower taxes.

That’s how I would approach these issues if I were in the Legislature.

Pete Radosevich is the publisher of the Pine Knot News community newspaper and an attorney in Esko who hosts the cable access talk show Harry’s Gang on CAT-7. His opinions are his own. Contact him at [email protected].

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