With Monday's crucial House vote fast approaching and the stadium bill likely a few votes short of passage, Gov. Mark Dayton engaged Saturday in a weekend lobbying blitz to persuade skeptical legislators to approve a new home for the Minnesota Vikings.
"I don't want them to be the Los Angeles Vikings, or the Tucson Vikings or the Vancouver Vikings," Dayton told a cheering crowd of hundreds at the Mall of America. "I want them to be the Minnesota Vikings the rest of my life."
Dayton's appearance at the mall, where he was joined by defensive end Jared Allen, launched what will be an ongoing campaign until the stadium's fate is decided. On Sunday night, Dayton and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak will host a rally at Mac's Industrial Sports Bar in Minneapolis, where they will urge supporters to contact legislators and press them to pass the project.
By Monday, the State Capitol lawn will become a Vikings tailgating mecca, complete with Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder tossing the pigskin.
Already the governor's Capitol office has become a makeshift base camp for the round-the-clock effort. Lists are circulating among the Vikings, lobbyists and legislators of members who are considered to be on the fence.
The stadium vote has scrambled the usual party alliances and divides. Suddenly, the business community has formed a fragile alliance with organized labor -- two groups that have been clobbering each other on other issues all session.
A political pressure cooker
In a scene more reminiscent of a political campaign, labor union call centers already have reached out to thousands of Minnesotans, urging them to contact legislators. Minnesota business leaders -- who staked out the stadium as a top priority this year -- are expected to be a crucial force in persuading GOP legislators averse to more spending.
The stadium issue has become a wicked pressure cooker for many legislators. Democrats face searing criticism from constituents for considering the use of tax dollars and more gambling as a way to finance a new stadium even as the state suffers from years of back-to-back budget cuts. Republicans walk an equally perilous line, balancing their desire to see the Vikings stay in Minnesota against bedrock party principles opposing more state spending.
For lawmakers, that has left no escape.
"You can't go anywhere without talking about the Vikings, and you haven't been able to go anywhere without talking about the Vikings for several months," said state Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing.
For supporters, the stadium is a chance to lock in the Vikings for a generation, generate jobs and create a showcase arena that will be used by Minnesotans year-round. Opponents say the state is being stampeded into spending precious public resources on a sports palace that will increase state debt and displace worthier public projects.
Roseville Sen. John Marty is among a cluster of DFLers who have joined with Republicans in pushing back against funding yet another stadium at taxpayer expense.
"The current stadium deal was never negotiated in the public interest," Marty said. "They weren't negotiating to get a fair deal for taxpayers."
Even the most experienced legislators and lobbyists admit they do not have a precise head count in either chamber, setting the stage for what could be dramatic and spectacular floor debates this week.
Lawmakers are braced for a flurry of amendments once Monday's House debate gets underway, as supporters try to win votes on the fly while opponents use every available maneuver to torpedo the bill. Among the amendments expected are those that would force the team to pay more than the $427 million it has committed to the nearly $1 billion project and another that would swap out the controversial charitable gambling component for more traditional user fees.
"The goal here is to craft a bill that can pass both the House and the Senate," said state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington.
Garofalo said he planned to spend the weekend trying to "practice the politics of addition rather than subtraction, by modifying the bill in a way that gets more Democrat and Republican votes rather than loses votes."
Opponents of the current stadium plan are mobilizing, too.
Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, has proposed an alternative stadium funding plan that would capture tax money from incomes taxes paid by pro athletes who play in the state and from increased ticket prices.
"We need to keep searching for viable options for stadium funding that do not overburden Minnesota's taxpayers," Nienow said.
The Taxpayers League of Minnesota, which opposes tax increases, is asking its members to tell legislators to reject the stadium proposal.
Meanwhile, Dayton is applying the kind of pressure that only a governor can bring to bear. In recent days, he has met privately with about 10 on-the-fence DFLers, in a personal appeal for their support. As a result, DFLers say they have the 34 votes that are their share of those needed for passage.
But there have been setbacks, too.
Dayton enraged Republicans Friday when he vetoed a GOP bill that would have provided tax breaks for Minnesota companies, but also was projected to increase a projected state deficit by another $145 million. Republicans say the bill was the state's best chance at sparking private sector jobs.
'Taking a little pause'
"We are actually taking a little pause," Minnesota Chamber of Commerce President David Olson said of the stadium effort. "He vetoed one of our top priorities. I am saying to myself, 'Gee, I am helping him with his top priority, and he isn't helping us with ours?'"
Olson said he is hopeful that a modified tax bill may re-emerge as part of an end-of-session swirl that would include a bonding bill and the stadium.
Charlie Weaver, head of the Minnesota Business Partnership that represents the state's largest corporations, said business will do what's needed, but Dayton needs to reciprocate.
"We can deliver enough votes to pass stadium," he said firmly. But Dayton, he said, has to give a little on the tax bill.
"The most important thing at this time of session is for everyone to save face," Weaver said, "to find ways for everybody to leave and feel good about the result."
Staff writers Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Mike Kaszuba contributed to this report. Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044