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Stadium Bill Progress Report: Needs Improvement

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With the distractions of unseasonably lovely March weather here in Minnesota, the not guilty verdict in Chris Cook's assault trial, and the Vikings' largely underwhelming free agency moves, there hasn't been a lot of talk about the Minnesota Vikings' stadium bill's progress through the Minnesota Legislature. Mildly interesting in that "watch your government at work" way, the bill's path through the committee process hasn't been stunningly encouraging for stadium supporters. But that doesn't mean stadium supporters should give in to all-out despair either.

Lots more after the jump.

For those who were more agreeably engaged and don't know, the Minnesota Vikings' stadium bill authored by Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, and Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, stalled in it's first outing last week before the state senate's Local Government and Elections committee. In what some reporters described as a grilling, the bill's authors were asked about the reliability of the revenue projections for electronic pull-tabs, source of the state's portion of the stadium cost. It's become a growing concern at the state capitol that the state's general fund will be tapped for millions if expected gambling revenues fall short.

The committee declined voting on the bill, which put the stadium bill behind schedule, and prompted Governor Mark Dayton to voice concerns that without substantial support from Republican lawmakers the stadium bill won't be able to pass during the current legislative session. However, considering the 70-page* bill was introduced relatively late in the current session, lawmakers need time to read the bill. Whether a better understanding of what the bill contains will help it pass or not, remains to be seen.

With elections looming this fall, lawmakers seem to favor a cautious approach to stadium legislation, not wanting to take leadership and be the first (or second, or third...) to voice support for the bill. Given the lingering economic climate, there is concern that voters won't appreciate their elected representatives voting for government subsidy of a facility for a professional sports team. Now, while we here at DN have frequently pointed out all the other activities that would take place at a new "people's" stadium, events that currently take place at the Metrodome**, the perception of a stadium bill as welfare for billionaires persists. If lawmakers are going to support this bill they are going to need a lot of assurances. And at the stadium bill's first committee stop, legislators needed more assurances than they got, hence no vote and the bill being thrown off schedule.

Whether that missed committee deadline will hurt the bill's chances of getting passed during this session is hard to say because there are so many things that can derail this bill, nailing it down a single overwhelming hurdle could be a challenge. The concerns about the electronic pull-tab revenue weren't exactly allayed when Sen. Rosen said that they are trying to find a supplemental funding source if the pull-tab revenue isn't sufficient to cover the state's bond payments. That's kind of a big deal. Especially with the charitable gaming interests worrying that e-pull-tabs will lift charities into higher tax brackets making the move to e-pull-tabs hurtful if they are introduced without significant tax relief. The allure of the current funding plan to many lawmakers is based on the fact that it doesn't use money from the state's general fund and it isn't a new tax, take that away because additional gaming revenue is insufficient, and the bill's list of allies could grow thin.

And, there's still the pesky problem of the stadium bill's lack of a majority of support on the Minneapolis City Council. Legislators at the capitol have expressed concern about passing a stadium bill that lacks majority support from the local equity partner. The stadium bill has Minneapolis' $150 million portion of stadium costs paid for with redirected tax revenue that currently supports the Convention Center. But, that funding source isn't without controversy because the aging Convention Center may require those same tax revenues for repairs to keep from operating at a loss. Despite redirecting those tax revenues (and increased parking fees on game days), one financial analysis suggested that Minneapolis' funding may still be short on its stadium contribution. Even though the Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak's office has issued a statement that the shortfall isn't a serious impediment to the project, voters might view the estimated $55 million shortfall differently. Oh and there's still that thing about Minneapolis capping its contribution to a stadium at $10 million to work around.

So faced with all those obstacles, despair might seem like a reasonable response. I disagree.

The recent flurry of stadium bills shows that there is significant interest in finding a solution to keeping the Minnesota Vikings in Minnesota. Locations from Duluth, Shakopee, Arden Hills, and Minneapolis have tried to secure the team. If the Vikings know that state and local governments want to keep the team in Minnesota and are actively working to find a way to make that happen, I think the team will find the patience to keep working with the process--so long as progress is being made.

The stadium bill's authors and sponsors will find a supplemental funding source to pay off the state's bond payments for a stadium. Maybe they'll supplement through user-based fees on the stadium itself, or a sports memorabilia tax. Whatever the solution, it's a good bet that Rosen and Lanning haven't spent the last six months working on this project simply to let it fall apart for lack of a supplemental funding plan that the state might, or might not, need in order to satisfy bond issuers.

Perhaps the thorniest issues facing the stadium deal are the ones related to the location, Minneapolis. Either a lack of funds or a lack of support would be challenging, facing both a lack of support and a lack of funding looks more like...well, it looks like a crap deal. Until you consider just how quiet Hennepin County has been during the stadium discussion. Involvement from the County could dramatically alter the outlook on the stadium bill's local aspect. If the County becomes involved in the stadium situation, it could provide additional funding that could close the city's funding gap. At this point, talk of Hennepin County entering into the stadium discussion is purely speculation on my part, but it's hard to believe that the County is any less interested than the city in losing a draw like the Vikings or losing out on the jobs that stadium construction would generate.

Just because the Vikings' stadium bill wasn't greeted with overwhelming support in its first committee appearance at the Minnesota Legislature doesn't mean hope is lost. Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk said this of a competing stadium bill (not favored by the Vikings) authored by Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes:

"It's a stadium bill, and it's amendable. Nothing's ever dead around here."

It doesn't seem like a stretch to think the same sentiment could apply to Rosen and Lanning's currently stalled stadium bill.

While local politicians aren't all that interested in the views of out-of-state fans, they are interested in what the voters in their districts have to say. If you support the Vikings' stadium bill, contact your representatives and let them know it. Representatives need to know that their constituents want stadium legislation to pass.

Oh, and, because I promised Ted I'd say this, Kurt Zellers is still a tool. Minnesota's House Speaker, Zellers, R-Maple Grove, has said he won't grant stadium legislation any special legislative favors in the House. Any DN readers who live in Zellers' district, might want to, courteously, tell him what you think of that particular stance.

Things might not look great on the stadium front, but it isn't hopeless.

*I've read several reports that said the stadium bill was 70 pages long, but there's a quote by Senate Majority leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, describing the bill as 80 pages long. Either way, it could a little while for lawmakers to digest the bill.

**The Metrodome currently hosts activities about 300 days a year, like high school sporting events and University of Minnesota baseball.