Lawmakers dig in over Vikings stadium funding
ST. PAUL — A cadre of Minnesota legislators opposed to putting public money into a deal for a new Vikings stadium acknowledged Thursday they’d let the team flee the state rather than let themselves be strong-armed into cutting a deal at any price.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, meanwhile, laid out two funding options and three possible sites in a bid to keep the team from bolting from the city to the suburbs — or beyond. His plan relies on new sales and lodging taxes or proceeds from a potential downtown casino.
All of it comes as Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s self-imposed deadline for crafting a stadium plan approaches. He hopes to call lawmakers into special session before Thanksgiving to vote on hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies.
The Vikings have four games remaining on their Metrodome lease, and have made it clear that they won’t re-up without assurances that a new stadium will get built. Team owner Zygi Wilf has stopped short of threatening to leave the state, but other cities craving an NFL franchise are paying attention.
“We don’t want them to leave, but if they’re going to leave I guess that is going to happen,” said Sen. David Hann, a Republican who led a news conference by a bipartisan group of lawmakers fighting efforts to expand gambling to help pay for a new stadium. The lawmakers said their opposition extends to using all forms of taxpayer money.
Added GOP Sen. Dave Thompson, an assistant majority leader: “I have to do what I believe is right. I wouldn’t be making the Vikings leave. It would be the ownership of the Vikings making a decision to leave if they do and the NFL allowing them because they don’t get what they want.”
Wilf prefers a suburban Ramsey County site that could result in a price tag topping $1 billion, with half or more coming from state and local revenue streams. The team reiterated Thursday that it regards the Arden Hills site as “the ideal stadium site for the state, the Vikings and our fans.”
The statement came in reaction to Rybak’s announcement of three stadium sites in Minneapolis, including one on the current Metrodome property. The project’s costs would range from $895 million to about $1.05 billion.
Under Rybak’s plan, the city would shoulder as much as $300 million of the overall cost. Unless lawmakers go the casino route, the sales tax would rise 0.35 percentage point — putting it above 8 percent overall on standard purchases in the city — and an extra 1 percent tax would be tacked onto hotel bills.
The mayor’s proposal also calls for a $150 million renovation of Target Center, where the NBA’s Timberwolves play. As a sweetener, Rybak is playing up the possibility of modest property tax relief once Target Center’s debt is restructured.
Rybak said he’s confident he can round up the votes on his city council despite a cool reaction to trial balloons he floated earlier. He’d also need to win over state lawmakers because they would have to allow Minneapolis to impose the added taxes and let it forgo a public referendum.
“Nobody is going to walk into this Capitol with an idea that will be met with palm branches,” Rybak said, adding, “The reality is every single idea here is going be met with very tough politics and people at the local and state level sticking their necks out. So I’m sticking my neck out.”
For his part, Dayton is remaining neutral on where a stadium should be built. Early Thursday, he got an aerial tour of the Arden Hills site, a former Army munitions plant.
Republicans who run the Legislature are also resisting the idea of new taxes. Some want the state to siphon money from a cultural legacy account fed by constitutionally dedicated sales tax proceeds; they argue the team is a critical part of the state’s heritage. Dayton said Wednesday he was open to the idea, but arts groups and others are aligning to fight it.
Gambling money is also a possibility.
One option in the Minneapolis plan depends on a downtown casino that developers have promoting for months. Rybak wants the state to sell a $20 million license and take 5 percent of gross revenues, putting that money toward the Vikings stadium.
Minnesota is home to several tribal casinos but has long resisted allowing private casino developers into the mix. It’s not the only gambling option in play. Other stadium supporters are pushing to allow slot machines at horse tracks or electronic gambling terminals in bars.
The added focus on gambling as a funding method to back stadium bonds brought an eclectic mix of opponents from both political parties together. They said the money stream is too risky, depends too heavily on problem gamblers and carries social costs such as higher crime.
“We really have the marriage of two bad ideas here: public funding for a stadium and that funding coming from gambling,” said Democratic Rep. Frank Hornstein.
Stadium backer Cory Merrifield of SavetheVikes.org said the gambling opponents were off the mark.
“You can walk into any gas station in Minnesota and gamble via scratch-offs. You can turn on any computer anywhere in Minnesota and gamble online via poker, fantasy football and online sports books,” he said.
Dayton and GOP leaders are due to meet privately Friday to discuss the next steps.