State Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, has it exactly right. Legislative action last year setting rules for alcohol sales at the new University of Minnesota football stadium is "St. Paul micromanagement at its worst.''
Rather than trusting the U's leadership and the Board of Regents (who are elected by legislators) to run their own sports facilities, populist lawmakers joined forces with the governor under the rallying cry of "if there's beer for one, there should be beer for all.'' And somehow, in a session during which they grappled with a frightening budget deficit and a tanking economy, lawmakers eked out time to pass a bill requiring alcohol sales for all TCF Bank Stadium seating areas or none whatsoever. U officials had proposed selling alcohol only in premium boxes and suites -- about 5 percent of total seating.
The trouble with frivolous busybody legislation is that it requires still more legislation to fix when things go awry, as they often do. Less than six months before the Gophers kick off their second season in their new on-campus home, Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, has introduced yet another measure regarding alcohol sales at TCF. This bill, however, makes sense. It would allow the U to call its own shots on alcohol sales -- and undo bad policy resulting from lawmakers' butting in where they shouldn't have.
Last year's beer-for-all push forced university officials into a tough spot. If they sold alcohol to everyone, they'd become an outlier in the Big 10 conference. Binge drinking is widespread on campuses. And the U has an ignominious history of alcohol-fueled violence: the melee in Dinkytown in 2009 and another in 2002, after the Gopher men won a national hockey championship. For obvious reasons, alcohol for all was a nonstarter for U administrators charged with students' safety and well-being. U officials did the right thing in banning booze, and, in order to be fair, extending the ban to other sports facilities.
The costly result was to put TCF's pricey seating at a competitive disadvantage. Unlike many other schools, the U has to compete with several professional sports teams for the limited number of wealthy sports patrons willing to pony up for primo seats. Although the Gophers' less-than-thrilling record on the field is certainly a factor, U officials argue compellingly that the alcohol ban cut into revenue from suites, boxes and drinks sold at events. They estimate the school has lost $1.3 million a year at its sports arenas because of the policy (only part of which is direct alcohol sales). Officials discounted suite rental prices 10 percent last year and will offer a 20 percent discount for 2010.
The elitism fears raised by the "beer for all or none" crowd don't seem to be much of a concern to others. So far, Pappas said, the phones aren't lighting up at her office from callers demanding drinks stadiumwide. She also pointed out that the U faces funding cuts of $36 million after being unalloted $50 million. Selling alcohol in suites won't come close to closing that gap, but every little bit helps.
Pappas' bill doesn't tell the U where to sell alcohol or whether it should. Instead, it hands responsibility for that decision back where it belongs. This should be the U's call -- and should have been from the first kickoff on the new gridiron.