Update: Senate Prepares For Long Stadium Debate

Reps. John Kriesel, Denny McNamara

By Don Davis and Danielle Nordine

The largest single construction project Minnesota officials ever have considered goes in front of the state Senate today.

A $975 million plan to build a new Vikings stadium may face tougher opposition in the Senate after it passed surprisingly easily in the House.

Senate Republican spokesman Steve Sviggum said it appears like it will be a long debate and end with a close vote. The Minnesota House approved the plan 73-58 late Monday after eight and a half hours of debate.

Many senators, especially Republicans, have been outspoken against the stadium construction plan.

Even if the bill is passed by the Senate, it probably still will face a few more steps before final approval.

A joint House and Senate conference committee likely would need to hash out the details and mesh the two versions of the bill before it could go to Gov. Mark Dayton. It could be on his desk by late this week.

Changes could be made during debate that do not sit well with the team or bill authors, Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said.

“That’s the way this process works,” Lanning said.

An amendment added in the House would increase the team’s contribution to the stadium construction, and team officials rejected the idea.

“It’s clear the Vikings are going to have to agree to more” funds than originally planned, Lanning said. What the amount would be exactly depends on Senate and conference committee action, he said.

The state’s contribution is funded by allowing for electronic pull tab and bingo devices. Some lawmakers have raised concerns about funding the stadium with gambling dollars.

Supporters were happy the stadium plan finally is before the Legislature for a vote after more than a decade of the Vikings saying they need a new home.

Vikings fans cheered outside the House chamber late Monday after the House approved the plan.

“The fact that the bill has come this far is a huge victory, but we still have work to do,” said Cory Merrifield, SavetheVikes.org founder.

Lanning said that the new Twins baseball and University of Minnesota football facilities are among the best in the country, so the Vikings should get a quality stadium, too.

Lanning said Minnesota has a reputation of quality, and the Vikings’ home at the downtown Minneapolis Metrodome does not live up to that.

“The people of Minnesota, fans, they want us to do something,” he said.

Besides, he told fellow lawmakers, the stadium has received enough publicity: “Let’s get this issue out of the headlines.”

Other communities would pay more for a stadium than Minnesota, Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, said.

“This is important to Minnesotans,” he added.

For Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, “this is a battle of the heart vs. the mind.”

He recalled teams that have left their host cities, including the Minnesota North Stars. It costs many communities three times as much to attract a new team as to keep one it has, he added.

Stadium supporters have warned the team could leave Minnesota if a stadium deal is not reached.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, opposed the bill because “we’re simply extracting money out of the private sector.”

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said that despite his opposition to the stadium plan, he made sure House members had a chance to vote on it.

“I will continue to facilitate this process as it moves forward, allowing all parties to resolve differences and, more importantly, better protect the interests of Minnesota taxpayers,” Zellers said.

However, he said it is time to look more at helping businesses and asked that a tax-relief bill Dayton vetoed Friday be reworked.

Kriesel said lawmakers should have voted on a stadium years ago.

“This is your chance to prove you love the Vikings,” Kriesel said before the vote.

The football team is important, he added. “Professional sports provide an escape from reality, a much needed distraction from our ordinary lives.”

Lanning said the bill he authored would provide more than a Vikings stadium to replace the Metrodome. The Vikings’ 10 games in the new facility would be joined by more than 300 other events each year, he said.

“Quite simply, the Metrodome will not meet the needs of Minnesota for the next 40 or 50 years,” Lanning said. “The time has come for Minnesota to make a decision.”

Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, gave a warning to stadium supporters. While he said he would vote for the stadium bill Monday night, he urged Lanning during expected House-Senate negotiations later to insert a provision that failed Monday night: To allow taxes gained from allowing more powerful fireworks to help fund the stadium.

“It’s about compromise,” Westrom said.

Other lawmakers also indicated they planned to vote for the bill Monday, but wanted the bill to change later during the process.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, voiced the feeling of several lawmakers who do not like gambling to fund the stadium and worry that not enough money will be available. If the funding falls short, she said, future lawmakers will be forced to cut health and education programs, and maybe raise taxes.

“It becomes the stadium that losers built,” Franson said if gambling is the funding source. “In order for the stadium to get paid, people have to lose their money.”

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, urged support of the bill, which he said was good “in this political climate.”

“The Minnesota Vikings have been an important part of our social fabric for a third of our history as a state,” Marquart said.

In the first hour of debate, representatives decided 97-31 to up the Vikings’ contribution to stadium construction costs. The Vikings insist they and other private sources will not pay more than the $427 million in Lanning’s original bill.

Garofalo offered the amendment that would cut public funds going to a stadium $105 million, thus increasing the Vikings’ responsibility by that amount.

The amendment “eliminates some of the barriers” preventing lawmakers from backing the stadium funding bill, Garofalo said.

Lanning said he and other stadium negotiators tried to get all the money possible out of the team. The team’s fiscal picture “right now is marginal,” Lanning said, part of the reason the Vikings want a new stadium.

“If we squeeze too much, we may end up with not having a deal,” Lanning said.

In the second hour of debate, the House decided against eliminating gambling taxes as a way to fund the stadium, replacing it with user fees. The Vikings oppose user fees.

The user fees would add about 10 percent to the cost of tickets, broadcast rights, parking and other stadium-related issues.

Just outside the House chambers as members began debate, dozens of union members in hard hats and Vikings fans wearing purple jerseys chanted “build it now.” Their numbers quickly dwindled as the debate wore on.

“This is first and foremost about jobs, putting Minnesotans back to work,” Dayton shouted to those gathered under the dome to support the stadium.

Next to those chanting in favor of a stadium stood a few members of the Welfare Rights Committee, who held signs complaining about spending money to a stadium.

Westrom failed in his attempt to switch the type of gambling that fund the stadium. Representatives voted down his amendment to allow the White Earth Nation to open a Twin Cities casino, with the state sharing in profits.

On a 70-60 vote, Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, got an amendment put on the bill requiring 25 percent of the materials used in the stadium, including food sold at concession stands, to be from Minnesota.

Rep. Kerry Gauthier, DFL-Duluth, said bar owners in his area said the Vikings are important because people go there to watch games. “That makes a difference.”