House Stadium Backer Says It Is Worth The Effort

The Minnesota Vikings need a new stadium and Minnesota needs the Vikings, the chief House promoter of a new stadium says.

Rep. Morrie Lanning knows that saving the Vikings football team is a challenge, but one he says is worthwhile.

“If we get nothing done, if April 30 comes and nothing is done, then I think there is the very real possibility the team will end up being put up for sale,” the Moorhead state representative said, giving as a deadline the day that legislative leaders say they want to end the 2012 Legislature.

If April 30 passes without a stadium deal, the Vikings likely would take that as a Minnesota rejection, he said.

“If Minnesota says, ‘No we are not going to do anything’ … the team will end up being sold and they will move,” Lanning said, adding that communities are lined up to snare a National Football League franchise.

Gov. Mark Dayton said in an interview that he fears Republican legislative leaders, House speaker Kurt Zellers in particular, want to “duck the issue until 2013” because it is too volatile in an election year.

“My request to both (top legislative leaders) the first time we sit down next year is to tell the people … what your intentions are,” Dayton said. “If you are not going to deal with it in 2012, tell us now and save of a great deal of energy and time.”

Either the speaker or Senate majority leader could stop any stadium-construction bill.

Lanning said it is important for the state to own a multi-purpose facility for a variety of activities.

The incentive to get the job done after years of legislative discussion came because the Vikings could leave Minnesota if they do not get a new home, and their Metrodome lease ends Feb. 1. The team says the Metrodome has outlived its usefulness and the Vikings cannot make enough money in the downtown Minneapolis facility.

Republican Lanning has worked for nearly a half-dozen years on a Vikings stadium, as well as helping pass legislation for a new Twins ballpark. He now is the chief House stadium bill author and has become the most-quoted lawmaker on stadium efforts.

During budget negotiations, which took most of the first seven months of 2011, Lanning and Senate author Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said they would not begin a stadium debate until Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature solved the state’s financial issues. That did not happen until July 20, when the two sides agreed to a budget and ended a government shutdown.

Since then, Lanning and Rosen have steered a working group made up of legislators and, often, a Dayton representative that is trying to find a solution to the controversial stadium construction situation.

The meetings, closed to the public and media, are aimed at producing a stadium-construction bill in early January, in time for a special legislative session on the subject or for debate during the regular session that begins Jan. 24.

Reaching a deal in time for a special session became more difficult when Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, resigned on Dec. 15 amid allegations that she had an improper relationship with a Senate employee. She had been involved in stadium talks.

Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said that Republican majorities do not have enough votes to approve a stadium. Within GOP ranks, there is a split about whether the state should be involved in a stadium. And even those who support a stadium cannot agree on how one should be funded.

Zellers and Lanning promised that Minnesotans will have plenty of chances to learn about a stadium plan and respond to it once a bill is drafted.

While Zellers was concerned about getting Democratic support, Lanning said that is happening.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said there are DFL advocates and he has worked with Lanning.

But, Thissen pointed out, reaching an agreement is tough: “Every proposal gains and loses votes.”

Lanning refuses to release a proposal before its time.

“I’m not going to roll out a bill unless we have a good chance of passing it,” Lanning said.

Public money will be part of a funding mechanism. Lanning said there is no way team owners can be expected to pay for a facility that the state will own and will be used for varied uses like monster truck rallies, concerts and high school football playoffs.

The Vikings originally pledged to contribute $425 million (with some coming from an NFL loan), Ramsey County $350 million and the state $300 million for a $1.1 billion stadium in northern Ramsey County’s Arden Hills. But key politicians deemed Ramsey County’s plan to raise sales taxes to help finance a stadium unworkable, so the county and state contributions remain up in the air.

Minneapolis says it can offer a less expensive site, but the Vikings prefer Arden Hills, in part because the team owners are developers and there is plenty of land around the Arden Hills site for businesses, homes and other uses.

Lanning and others say gambling will be part of a funding package, but there is no agreement on what type of gambling.

The long-sought racino proposal, to allow casinos into the state’s two horse-racing tracks, is challenged by people who want to expand the state lottery to electronic machines in bars and others who want to allow electronic pull tabs and bingo. Raising taxes to bring in money appears to be a non-starter.

While the quiet meetings continue, the Vikings complain that if they do not have a new stadium deal soon, they will become the only team without a stadium lease. That does not bother Lanning.

“The Vikings are going to be in the Metrodome another year regardless,” he said.

But if the next legislative session passes without a deal, all bets are off, he said. “One way or another, Minnesota needs to decide what we are going to do.”