Business, labor unite in renewed 11th-hour lobbying push — but outcome far from clear
The swift pace at which the Minnesota Vikings stadium bill advanced through the House and Senate this week amounted to nothing short of a legislative resurrection.
The House Ways and Means Committee on Monday passed the $1 billion stadium proposal to the floor without recommendation on a voice vote. The deal includes $398 million from the state financed with revenue from legalizing electronic forms of pulltab and bingo games. The victory for the team’s stadium prospects came nearly a week after the bill was shot down by the House Government Operations Committee on a roll-call vote.
At the time, it appeared the stadium push was finished for 2012, a state of affairs that Gov. Mark Dayton seemed to affirm when he said afterward, “We’ll get it next session if we can’t get it this session.”
But since that time, an intense lobbying campaign that has seen labor and business moving in concert for the first time has kept the bill alive and moving. House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, said he believes the push from labor, in particular, has exerted a restraining influence over elements of the legislative DFL that had been inclined to engage in gamesmanship over the stadium.
“Labor has been pushing very, very hard,” Dean said. “There are a lot of their members that are on the bench. When they see political games being played, they get angry.”
The bill’s chief author, Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, noted that the business lobby has turned up the heat on Republicans in a similar fashion. The effort has featured active lobbying by heavy hitters such as Target Corp. executive John Griffith, who has long been a behind-the-scenes player in Minneapolis’ stadium push. And there’s also the aura of last Friday’s visit by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, but his impact is seen as limited because his audience was contained to Dayton, legislative leaders and stadium bill authors.
“I think labor has had an effect on the minority in particular,” Lanning said. “Business has had an effect on our side. There’s been a message of, ‘Let’s get this to the floor for a vote.’”
Apparent obstacle arises in Senate Taxes
The pressure from labor, particularly unions represented building trades and hospitality workers, came down hard on DFLers after they put up only one yes vote in the bill’s 9-6 defeat in House Government Operations, according to one lawmaker.
“[The pressure from labor] was the turning point,” one GOP lawmaker said. “It went from no one wanting to be the one who advanced it to no one wanting to be the one who killed it.”
But the charge to move the bill to the floor met with resistance from influential Republicans, however. On Wednesday morning, Deputy Senate Majority Leader Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, issued a news release calling for the bill to be heard in the Senate Taxes Committee, which she chairs.
“The Vikings Stadium proposal that passed the Senate Jobs Committee contains provisions that require the consideration of the Senate Tax Committee,” Ortman said. “I am requesting that the bill be referred to the Tax Committee following this morning’s hearing in Finance.”
The bill is believed to face significant obstacles to passage among the members of the Taxes Committee.
Ortman’s announcement followed an outspoken appearance on Fox9 News Tuesday evening by Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, who is influential among the large freshman class in the Senate. During the interview, Thompson said that the rush to get the bill to the floor amounts to conservative lawmakers “getting rolled.”
“We are trying to sneak around the Tax Committee even though the bill itself uses the word ‘tax’ 174 times,” Thompson told the station.
No celebrating yet
But the Vikings aren’t popping any champagne corks just yet. This week’s committee victories have all been recorded on voice votes. Last week’s votes were roll calls in which committee swing voters agonized palpably over how to land on the prevailing side. In the House Government Operations Committee, two GOP members — Duane Quam of Byron and Rich Murray of Albert Lea — actually passed on voting initially in order to see if the bill had enough support to succeed. When only one DFLer voted for the bill and its prospects for passage were dashed, they both voted against the bill in its 9-6 defeat.
The opposite outcome was evidenced by the roll call on Friday night in the Senate Local Government Committee. Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, passed on the first round and later changed to “aye” when it was apparent the bill would pass. Unlike the voice votes of this week, the final floor votes will be recorded for posterity and will not afford lawmakers a place to hide.
Amendments reshape bill
While the stadium bill is moving, it’s also being amended in ways that stand to help its chances with certain voting blocs but alienate others.
For example, Sen. Al DeKruif, R-Madison Lake, successfully amended the bill in the Senate Jobs Committee on Tuesday to make it potentially more expansive in terms of the types of electronic gambling it underwrites. That move drew criticism from Minnesota Indian tribes who hold a monopoly on gambling in Minnesota, with one tribal lobbyist calling it “very concerning.” The tribes had said they would not take legal action over the original electronic pulltabs proposal, but a broader gambling expansion could land the whole question of stadium funding in court. And that prospect is one key reason that the horse track-based gambling expansion known as “racino” has never attracted a critical mass of support from stadium backers.
“There are so many moving parts. I don’t know how they are going to get it into shape by Monday,” said one lobbyist, making reference to GOP leaders’ hoped-for adjournment date of April 30.
The rivalry between the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul has figured prominently in some of the amendments proposed in committee. In particular, St. Paul area legislators have proposed to change the bill in ways that appear likely to kill it if they were to stay in the legislation.
St. Paul legislators, who are all DFLers, have objected to one provision in the bill that provides funding to refurbish the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis, arguing that it undermines the competitive balance between the two cities. In an amendment offered by Sen. John Harrington, DFL-St. Paul, on Friday, the Senate Local Government Committee stripped out the Target Center funding. The move proved to be fleeting, however, because Senate chief sponsor Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, added the Target Center back into her bill on Tuesday in the Senate Jobs Committee.
Harrington expressed disappointment when he learned Target Center was back in the bill. “From St. Paul’s perspective, that’s a major setback,” he said.
To St. Paul’s benefit, the Jobs Committee adopted an amendment offered by Sen. Jim Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, to forgive $43 million in debt on the Xcel Energy Center in downtown St. Paul.
“St. Paul needs to be in the mix, and we’ve got to get this bill passed,” Metzen said.
But Rosen indicated the Xcel amendment involves too much money to simply be appended to the stadium package. “That [debt break] will have to come down significantly,” Rosen said.
Legal, financial issues still loom
The amendments reflect the tension between the need to create as wide a base of legislative support as possible while also keeping intact the terms of the deal as agreed to by Dayton, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and the Vikings’ owners.
Even if stadium advocates are able to thread that needle politically, the bill still poses legal and financial concerns. In particular, the bill’s proposal to fund the state share of construction costs by using so-called appropriations bonds is legally untested and will require assurance from the Minnesota Supreme Court that the approach passes constitutional muster.
The state is pursuing a similar clarification with respect to the tobacco bond borrowing scheme passed as part of the state’s 2011 budget agreement, and the court’s opinion in that matter may or may not resolve the legal questions attached to Vikings stadium funding. For example, said one legislative staffer familiar with the issue, the court might rule narrowly that the use of appropriation bonds to generate operating funds for the state is unconstitutional — but leave unsettled whether their use for funding a project like a stadium is permissible. In that event, a separate court action would have to settle the stadium tangle.
In addition, the revenue potential of e-pulltabs has proven to be a point of contention. Many legislators have expressed doubts that authorizing an electronic version of a game that is played mainly by older people will yield any serious windfall to the state or to sponsoring charities. And those doubts have cast a spotlight on backup revenue sources conceived to make sure that any revenue shortfall from electronic pulltabs and bingo does not have to be made up by drawing down general fund dollars.
The backup revenue source that has generated the most attention is a House proposal authored by Rep. John Kriesel that would legalize sports “tipboard” games. But foes of that measure have claimed it would run afoul of federal constitutional law.