One of the best prospects for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium may be tied to a leading senator's efforts to expand gambling in Minnesota.
Sen. Dick Day, a six-term Republican from Owatonna and former minority leader, announced Monday that he will resign his seat to lobby full-time for slots at the state's racetracks. Some of the proceeds could be used for a new football stadium.
The move, which Day said could raise $125 million a year, comes as a growing group of influential business and political insiders are working to muscle the proposed stadium to the top of the agenda when the Legislature convenes in early February.
Day, long an outspoken advocate of slots at the state's two horse-racing tracks, said he would lead the newly formed nonprofit Racino Now, and already has $250,000 in backing from influential horse owners in Minnesota.
Though Day said the Minnesota Senate had been close to passing racino legislation in the past, he used the stadium Tuesday as a new selling point for a proposal he said would generate $125 million annually for everything from education to health care.
At a time when Minnesota faces a $1.2 billion deficit, a governor with no appetite for raising taxes, a lack of jobs and the possible departure of its popular football team, there were signs that Day's proposal might be gaining traction.
"This is our year," Day said at a midmorning news conference.
Among the signs: Pawlenty's office confirmed that the governor had recently spoken on the phone with Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, and that the two men would meet before the end of the month.
But there were also indications that significant roadblocks remained. Though Day told reporters that Pawlenty had assured him he would sign racino legislation, a Pawlenty spokesman later said the governor's reluctance to expand gambling had not changed.
As in the past, the proposal is expected to draw intense opposition from the Indian tribes that now have a lock on casino gambling in Minnesota. John McCarthy of the Minnesota Gaming Association, which represents nine of the 11 Indian casinos, said Day was likely exaggerating the amount racino gambling would raise, and said the DFL's control of both the House and Senate would make passage more difficult than in the past.
Senate Minority Leader David Senjem said Tuesday that racino legislation had come within a hair of Senate passage on the last night of the legislative session that ended in May. "We were counting noses," he said. "We thought we were five short."
Chris Johnson, the executive director of Racino Now, said Day only recently decided to join the group, which he said incorporated a week ago. Johnson said that Randy Sampson, the president of Shakopee's Canterbury Park racetrack, was not a donor to the nonprofit, though Day at a press conference said that several individuals associated with the track had given money.
"The senator's phone has been just ringing off the hook," said Johnson, who joined Day to begin a state tour Tuesday to promote the legislation. "It's just been absolutely crazy."
In a statement Tuesday, Sampson said that "I am hopeful Senator Day will be able to raise the racino discussion to a volume that can no longer be ignored at the Capitol."
Day, who will leave the Senate on Jan. 8, also found himself in the cross hairs of Common Cause Minnesota, a government ethics group that accused him Tuesday of "cashing in on his experience as an elected official." Day called the charges "ridiculous."
Day's penchant for being at odds with other Republicans was also on display Tuesday when GOP state chair Tony Sutton downplayed racino's chances.
"I don't think it's going to happen," Sutton said. "He's got a passion for this issue, but it left him out of step with many people in the Republican Party."
There are now at least two proposals regarding racino gambling that will likely await legislators in February. In addition to Day's plan, Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, is pushing for a constitutional amendment that would allow slot machines at horse racing tracks, with money specifically designated for a Vikings stadium.
The road ahead for racino gambling is paved with failures. In 2005, when Pawlenty pushed unsuccessfully for casinos at Canterbury Park in partnership with the Indian tribes, Republican supporters estimated they would bring in $218 million to the state over two years.
Day said passage of racino legislation would give the state financial breathing room in a number of spots.
"Could a portion of it be used for stadiums?" he said. "Definitely. We got money for stadiums, education, health care, transportation. You could take $125 million a year and move it around however you want."
Vikings officials have been reluctant to align themselves with gambling proposals in the past, but on Tuesday they expressed cautious optimism about Day's plan.
"We welcome any and all viable proposals," said Lester Bagley, the team's spokesperson on stadium. He said the Vikings are not financially involved with Racino Now, and that any proposal to use gambling proceeds for a new stadium would have to be approved by the National Football League.
For now, one of the bigger questions remains the extent to which Day can win over not only majorities in the House and Senate, but the firm support of a governor who has been burned on gambling issues before.
Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung, who once worked as an aide to Day, said Tuesday that "Governor Pawlenty has stated many times publicly and privately there isn't enough legislative support to pass gaming legislation, and it's also not a road he's interested in going down again."
Day said that "I sure don't want to cause any friction with the governor," but stood by his comments, adding "He just doesn't like to get into the fray."
Staff writers Baird Helgeson and Pat Doyle contributed to this report.
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673