House committee vote caps off year of false starts for Vikes bill
Barring some unlikely resurrection as part of a close-of-session grand bargain, the long-troubled Vikings stadium bill has apparently drawn its last breath of 2012. As many observers expected, the coup de grace was administered Monday evening in the House Government Operations and Elections Committee, where the bill was defeated 9-6 after a four-hour hearing.
“Obviously [Monday] night was a serious blow,” said House chief author Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead. “The chances of us getting something done this session have been greatly diminished.”
The stadium push, dogged from the start by fundamental uncertainties over location, terms, and state and local funding sources, never built a critical mass of rank-and-file support in any of the four legislative party caucuses or among the leadership. At a March press event to announce the bill’s launch, only one legislative leader — Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook — stood with the throng of supporters arrayed around the podium in the governor’s reception room.
The impact of the expressly hands-off approach by House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, to the bill’s fate was underscored again Monday by Government Operations Chairwoman Joyce Peppin’s vote against it. Committee chairs are tasked by the leadership with shepherding prized bills to a successful conclusion, but the stadium was never a priority to House leaders.
Regarding her opposition, Peppin, R-Rogers, said afterward, “I have some concerns about appropriation bonds. If the proposed gambling money doesn’t come through, I think the state would be on the hook for the bonds. Essentially the bill needed more work with financing.”
Death by a thousand cuts
The $975 million Minneapolis stadium plan, originally targeted for January introduction, was unveiled with great fanfare in early March by Gov. Mark Dayton, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, the Vikings and a bipartisan group of supporters in the Legislature. The state proposed to pitch in $398 million in bonds that would be paid off by revenue from allowing electronic pulltabs and bingo.
The deal came after a tortuous 2011 in which Dayton tried to pressure GOP legislative leaders to create a stadium bill and hold a special session before the new year. In addition to the partisan tug-and-pull between Dayton and legislative leaders, the stadium movement was undermined by the lack of specificity in backers’ plans.
State officials also raised concerns about the polluted site in Arden Hills in Ramsey County that the team preferred, and a battle arose over the shift to Minneapolis. The window of opportunity seemed to close further when Dayton and legislative leaders conceded that the Legislature would not allow any deal that circumvented a local sales tax referendum. Such an exemption from local strictures proved essential to the passage of the Minnesota Twins stadium bill in 2006.
The setback on local financing in Ramsey County meant that the state had to pick up a larger share of the public tab for the stadium’s construction. But the Minneapolis site posed similar problems owing to a city charter provision that forbids spending more than $10 million on any sports facility without a referendum. In the end, backers floated creative and untested types of financing in hopes of putting a politically feasible bill together.
But lawmakers like Peppin remained unconvinced that the revenue from e-pulltabs would produce enough cash to meet debt service, sending stadium supporters scrambling to define backstopping sources of money such as a sports-themed scratch-off game or the Hennepin County sales tax receipts used to finance Target Field for the Twins.
In some cases those backup sources stirred controversies of their own. On the day of the Government Operations hearing, a letter from Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat opposing the use of the Hennepin County dollars circulated at the Capitol.
“Now, absent any consultation with members of the Hennepin County Board, the House bill would take the unprecedented step of effectively hijacking county revenue should charitable gaming revenue fall short,” Opat’s letter complained.
‘A gamut of reasons’
In the face of these doubts regarding the bill’s financing, Lanning brought his bill into the Government Operations Committee on Monday night. The hearing offered up the usual rhetorical fare: Supporters touted alleged economic benefits and spoke of cultural assets; opponents decried corporate welfare and misplaced state spending priorities.
A total of 13 amendments were processed fairly quickly; one, offered by Peppin, eliminated a section in the bill allowing the state and city to circumvent the referendum requirement.
Heading into the roll call, it looked unlikely that any DFLers other than Rep. Mike Nelson of Brooklyn Park would vote in favor, despite efforts by labor leaders and Minneapolis interests to win their support. But the abiding uncertainty about the head count was such that two Republicans, Reps. Rich Murray and Duane Quam, initially passed on voting. When it became clear the bill was going to be defeated, Murray and Quam both joined the dissenters.
In addition to concerns about the financing, Rep. Dave Hancock, R-Bemidji, criticized the use of public dollars to assist a private enterprise.
“There is just a gamut of reasons that people articulate for saying they don’t want this to keep moving,” Lanning said. “But there are a lot of people who want it to keep moving. There are a lot of people who want it to get on the House floor where everybody has a chance to vote.
“In effect,” Lanning said, “what happened [Monday] night is you’ve got three people who are deciding this issue for the whole House. That’s not right.”
Any remaining potential that the bill could move again now depends on its fate in Senate committees or as a floor amendment in the House. The Senate Local Government panel heard the bill in March, but in a sign that it lacked the support for passage, committee Chairman Ray Vandeveer, R-Forest Lake, held it over.
“The question is,” one lobbyist said after the House vote, “does that give [Vandeveer] the cover to say: It’s dead in the House; why should I bring it up?”
In the wake of the House committee defeat, Senate chief author Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said she is working on new e-pulltab backup financing options for her bill.