As this issue of Capitol Report went to press, the Vikings stadium bill was scheduled to be heard in the Senate Taxes Committee on Friday afternoon. Visit politicsinmn.com for continuing coverage of the Vikings stadium debate and other end-of-session machinations.
When the sun rose on Tuesday, April 17, the slow death of the Minnesota Vikings stadium bill appeared complete at last.
The bill had been defeated in a key House committee vote the night before, and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton — the biggest champion of the stadium push — stood in front of reporters sounding openly dejected about its prospects for the first time. “We’ve got to get a stadium next year or the Vikings will leave,” Dayton declared at a news conference, even opening the door to a possible fall special session to try to take up the contentious $975 million proposal. “We’ll get it next session,” he said, “if we can’t get it this session.”
To most listeners, that played as an admission that the regular-session battle was effectively over. Dayton was reacting to an embarrassing rejection of the bill the night before in the House Government Operations and Elections Committee. After roughly four hours of testimony and multiple amendments, the bill failed on a 9-6 roll call vote that saw two Republicans initially pass on voting, ultimately casting “no” votes after it became apparent that only one committee Democrat was supporting the bill. Afterward, House GOP chief stadium author Morrie Lanning said that the bill’s passage would require someone to “pull a rabbit out of a hat.”
But two days later, in a Thursday press gathering that followed a conference call with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the governor was back in his bully pulpit sounding a very different note: Dayton said he was given a formal warning from the commissioner that the Vikings could cut a deal to pack up and leave after next season if a deal wasn’t brokered before lawmakers were constitutionally required to adjourn in May.
And what of his talk about settling the whole matter later? Not feasible, Dayton now said, characterizing the chances of a fall special session on the stadium as “extremely slim to extremely none.”
In the days that followed, the bill was abruptly resuscitated in a manner that shocked many longtime denizens of the Capitol.
Friday, April 20: To put an exclamation mark on his warning to Dayton, Goodell and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney flew to St. Paul on Friday morning to meet face-to-face with stadium bill principals from the executive and legislative branches. And Dayton’s sudden change in tune was quickly followed by a perceptible shift in strategy on the part of Senate DFL Minority Leader Tom Bakk, who assumed an instrumental role in the stadium’s quick revival in the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee.
The bill had already stumbled once in a hearing before the panel — it was tabled, apparently for lack of votes to pass it, in March — but this time Bakk made a deal with Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem to assure that Democrats would put up the lion’s share of the votes needed to pass the bill. In the end, DFLers put up five of the eight votes required.
But the committee amended some changes into the bill. Among the more significant: Minneapolis DFL Sen. Ken Kelash successfully offered an amendment to place a 10 percent surcharge on box suites. And St. Paul DFL Sen. John Harrington, rankled by provisions that give the Target Center in Minneapolis a competitive leg up on St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center, successfully amended the bill on a voice vote to remove the Target Center provisions on grounds of “fairness.” That move was potentially catastrophic in the larger scheme of stadium politics:
Removing the Target Center provisions would amount to a stadium deal breaker within the ranks of a divided Minneapolis City Council.
Monday, April 23: Just one week after the House shot down the stadium bill in Government Operations and Elections, the House Ways and Means Committee took up charitable gambling legislation sponsored by Rep. John Kriesel that contained the stadium bill’s main revenue source, electronic pulltabs and bingo. Despite previous statements by Kriesel that he would not accept a Vikings stadium amendment to the bill, he had changed his tune by the time Lanning successfully inserted the stadium bill into the gambling bill in committee.
There was little drama in the proceedings. Unlike previous committee stops, which featured roll call votes, Ways and Means passed the bill on a voice vote and sent it to the floor without recommendation. That same day, the Senate Rules Committee voted to send the stadium package to the Jobs and Economic Development Committee for a hearing.
Tuesday, April 24: The central question in the Senate Jobs Committee was not whether the bill would pass but what sorts of perks might be accorded to St. Paul with respect to the Target Center provisions. In a move that was mirrored more than once during the week, Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, expunged politically damaging changes made in the bill’s previous stop. In this case, she reinserted the funding for the Target Center, noting that it was essential for the stadium’s chances of passing the Minneapolis City Council.
But the cross-river rivalry then picked up where it had left off in the Local Government Committee: South St. Paul DFL Sen. James Metzen moved to amend the stadium proposal to forgive $43 million in debt remaining on the RiverCentre in downtown St. Paul. “We’re doing good things for Minneapolis, but in St. Paul we need some help,” he said. “I think we can deliver a couple of St. Paul votes if we can do this.”
That wasn’t all they were hoping to get — city officials also asked for $20 million in funding for a new Saints stadium in downtown St. Paul. The RiverCentre provision was adopted, but Rosen made clear that the bill’s e-pulltab revenue would not be sufficient to cover the forgiven St. Paul debt; she told the committee that the provision would need to come out. Once again, the stadium bill was passed on a voice vote. After it had been referred to the Senate Finance Committee for what would presumably be its last stop on the way to the floor, Jobs Committee Chairman Geoff Michel said the stadium had taken on an “air of inevitability.”
But its momentum proved partly illusory. The effort to fast-track the bill to the floor elicited objections from the conservative rump faction in the Senate Republican caucus, which generally opposes both public funding for stadium projects and the gambling expansion proposed to pay for this one.
On Tuesday evening, freshman Lakeville Republican Sen. Dave Thompson took to the air on Fox 9 (KMSP-TV) to rail against GOP leaders for everything from the stadium to the bonding bill. But his most direct, and damning, comments were aimed at the stadium bill’s skirting of the Senate Taxes Committee. “Here we are looking at subsidizing another stadium, and using gambling, which is effectively another tax increase, to do it,” Thompson said. “We are trying to sneak around the Tax Committee even though the bill itself uses the word ‘tax’ 174 times.”
Wednesday, April 25: GOP Senate Taxes Chairwoman Julianne Ortman, who is still facing a pending, post-session endorsement challenge from Ron Paul/Tea Party elements in her Carver County Senate district, reacted quickly to the shot across the bow from Thompson. In a news release issued as staffers were still arriving at work on Wednesday morning, the deputy majority leader called for the Vikings bill to be sent to her committee for a hearing.
So when the Senate Finance Committee convened at 9 a.m., Finance Chairwoman Claire Robling made clear early on that Taxes would have its own crack at the Vikings bill. The more than six-hour Finance hearing that ensued was marked by a series of moves from stadium opponents, most prominently GOP Sen. David Hann, to block the bill. But in the end, it was an amendment offered by GOP Sen. Sean Nienow that successfully poisoned the package.
In the most surprising twist of the sudden stadium surge, the anti-stadium Nienow offered an amendment to pay for the state’s $398 million portion of the facility’s construction cost by legalizing slot machines at horse racing tracks — also known as racino — in the place of electronic pulltabs and bingo. The committee, whose roster includes such racino stalwarts as Robling and Sen. Mike Parry, passed the Nienow amendment 11-3.
“We were as surprised as anyone else,” said Canterbury Park spokesman Ron Rosenbaum of the racino amendment. “We were not part of that play in any way, shape or form. The last thing racino people wanted to do is throw a monkey wrench in the Vikings play to get a new stadium.”
Nienow voted against the final bill in committee despite the adoption of his racino amendment. “Politics make strange bedfellows,” Rosenbaum added. “And the last week of session makes even stranger bedfellows.”
“It will stop the bill,” said a visibly displeased Rosen in the committee, noting that both House chief sponsor Morrie Lanning and the state’s powerful Indian tribes oppose using racino to fund the stadium. Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon offered an amendment to Nienow’s amendment, proposing that the stadium bill should include both charitable gambling and racinos as funding mechanisms. Langseth’s amendment also passed and will make it easier to strip the racino measure from the stadium bill. The Nienow racino amendment “complicates things,” Rosen said afterward, “but it can be dealt with.”
During the hearing, Vikings players Adrian Peterson, Chad Greenway and John Sullivan wandered the Capitol halls in a roughly 30-minute visit, pressing the flesh in support of a new stadium. The visit was long enough to turn some lawmakers sour. As the players moved through the building, DFL Rep. Alice Hausman offered a harsh assessment to the Associated Press. “This is so disgusting,” she said. “I can’t stand it.”
To add further complications to the problems brought by the racino amendment, the Vikings chief in-house lobbyist, Lester Bagley, said the team doesn’t agree with some of the amendments that have been added through the committee process. He noted that the 40-year lease is longer than the 30-year lease that was initially agreed to by the team, Dayton and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. He also expressed concern about the clawback provision on profits resulting from a sale of the team after the stadium is built, and a requirement that the Vikings franchise cover the city of Minneapolis’ share of operating costs during the first five years of the stadium’s life.
Friday, April 27: Capitol regulars awoke to the news that a 3 p.m. hearing had been scheduled in the Senate Taxes Committee.