As the Minnesota Vikings worked through preseason practice last week in Mankato, Ramsey County commissioners and team officials were doing intensive work on the specifics of a proposal to help build a new football stadium for the team in Arden Hills.
Without revealing new details, team owner Zygi Wilf reportedly said an agreement was “pretty much done.”
The movement that the team is trumpeting stands in stark contrast to the pace at which the stadium issue has moved at the Capitol this year. Bills were introduced during this year’s legislative session by Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, and Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, that involved local sources of funding for a stadium.
Even though the legislation was introduced in April, there was scant attention paid to the stadium issue while lawmakers clawed their way toward the budget agreement that ended the government shutdown. Although both Lanning and Rosen sit on influential finance committees in their respective chambers, the proposal wasn’t heard in committee during either the regular or special sessions.
With the dust now settling on the budget, Lanning and other point people on the Vikings issue are trying to build support for a bill that can pass both legislative chambers in time to meet the implicit deadline that arrives with the expiration of the Vikings lease at the Metrodome at the end of the coming season.
“What’s going to happen now in the next month or so is try to finish up any loose ends that need to be tied up before we move forward with the proposal,” Lanning said. “Once we’ve got a proposal pretty well in hand, then we’ll start working legislators to see what kind of support there will be.”
The proposal on the table involves $350 million from Ramsey County that would be derived from a half-cent countywide sales tax increase. The state is being asked to provide $300 million from sources that are yet to be determined. While legislators roundly reject spending general tax dollars on a stadium, there could be more appetite for stadium-specific sources of revenue like a sports memorabilia tax.
Freshmen generally opposed
But the stadium will be a tough sell in the Legislature for some of the same reasons that the budget process was so fraught — chief among them a strong phalanx of conservative Republican legislators who are opposed to additional government spending in any form. Sen. Dave Brown, R-Becker, is unhappy that the final budget shifted state K-12 payments into the future to plug the deficit. He doesn’t think money should be going to a stadium if the Legislature cannot provide stable funding for schools.
“If they are looking for money from the state, I would have to ask, where is that going to come from?” Brown said. “We couldn’t find enough money to pay our school districts on time, and now we’re going to find money to help fund a stadium. That doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Brown said he doubts the memorabilia tax will garner enough support in the Legislature.
Sen. Jim Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, who has been a stadium supporter, noted that many Republicans during the session wore lapel pins that said “Not a Penny More.” Getting a stadium passed in an environment dominated by staunch fiscal conservatives will be a challenge, he said.
“I think there are about 17 new [Republican] members [in the Senate],” Metzen said. “I would guess more than half of those new members or more are Tea Party-leaning conservatives.
“I don’t know how they can round up enough [votes]. Certainly it’s going to take both parties.”
Lanning acknowledges that he will need Democratic support to pass a stadium bill.
“There will be Republicans who are very much opposed,” he said. “There will be Democrats who are very much opposed. There will be bipartisan support, good bipartisan support. This cannot happen without that support.”
Although the Vikings stadium enjoys the support of a DFL governor in Mark Dayton, there’s reason to doubt that DFL legislators will rescue the bill.
“They really need to find the Republicans,” said a Republican lobbyist who is not working on the stadium issue. “It’s an election year, and I don’t see the Democrats running to bail out the Republicans.”
One additional roadblock is opposition to the Arden Hills stadium from St. Paul’s legislative delegation, which consists entirely of DFLers.
Stadium supporters don’t automatically assume that legislators who are sympathetic to the Tea Party will reject the stadium bill out of hand. Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, who is a stadium supporter, acknowledged that stadium legislation has a hostile audience among newly elected conservatives. But he thinks the economic benefits of professional football in Minnesota will help persuade Republicans.
“I’ve been to some Tea Parties and I’ve heard some speeches,” Nornes said. “But frankly I’ve never heard the Vikings stadium as part of it. It may be. But I think they are more concerned with how the government operates and how we use your money.”
Tea Party vs. business interests
Some conservative Republican freshman, however, like Brown and his fellow Sens. Dave Thompson of Burnsville and Gretchen Hoffman of Vergas, among others, continue to question the stadium as a legislative priority. Their stance is likely to run afoul of another powerful force in Republican politics: business.
Republican legislative leaders, who are more attentive to the concerns of state business leaders, might have to manage a difficult balancing act in handling the demands of the Tea Party and business.
“The freshman Republicans are not nearly as beholden to business interests as leadership is,” the Republican lobbyist said.
One issue that complicates the business community’s approach to the Vikings stadium is the desire among Minneapolis business interests for a downtown stadium. The lobbyist said it’s likely that a proposal might surface that involves building a downtown Minneapolis stadium and refurbishing the Target Center.
The Vikings could get a boost if their on-field performance this season is inspiring. But the team and Ramsey County aren’t getting a break from economic trends. The stock market has plunged and economic growth remains low. Lawmakers will be concerned about the perception of being detached from the concerns of Minnesotans by devoting time and money to a stadium owned by the billionaire Wilf.
Rep. Mark Murdock, R-Ottertail, recently conducted a survey on his legislative website. When asked if the state should assist in funding a Vikings stadium, 58 percent said no. For the respondents who said yes on Murdock’s survey, 45 percent favored funding the stadium through a user tax applied specifically to goods and services purchased by the fans. Twelve percent favored a local sales tax.
Dayton is making a push to get the stadium process moving. He sent a letter to Metropolitan Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh and Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission Chairman Ted Mondale that asked them to do a fast-tracked analysis of the costs associated with cleaning the former munitions site in Arden Hills and making the required transportation improvements to the surrounding area.