A revised plan to build a new Minnesota Vikings stadium was approved late Monday by a House committee, giving the proposal a shot of adrenaline after it spent much of the day facing heavy criticism.
Trying to build momentum for the $975 million project, the 22-member House Commerce and Regulatory Reform panel gave the proposal a generally friendly reception and adopted the plan on a voice vote. It could now go before at least one other House panel this week as proponents try to accelerate the project before the Legislature begins a 10-day spring break.
Monday’s first House hearing -- no Senate committee has yet passed the proposal -- showed that the Vikings stadium plan faced choppy political seas. The hearing was an hour late in beginning because DFLers on the panel suddenly left to meet in private regarding the legislation. “Things were a little helter skelter tonight," said Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, the committee chair, as the final vote was taken.
The Republican-led panel quickly focused on a new provision in the stadium funding package that would allow sports-themed tip boards in Minnesota, which Gov. Mark Dayton and others earlier in the day said was questionable legally because of federal laws prohibiting sports betting in Minnesota.
“Do you think the governor’s assessment is not entirely accurate?” Rep. Sheldon Johnson, DFL-St. Paul, asked at one point.
King Wilson, the executive director of Allied Charities of Minnesota, an umbrella group for the charities, said he felt certain that sports-themed tip boards would be deemed legal and were different from outright sports bookmaking. A tip board, he said, was simply a numerical game that was not based on which team won a particular game. “It does not matter who wins or loses,” said Wilson.
But an analyst for the House panel told the committee Monday that he was unsure the provision could survive a court challenge.
Others tried to look past any legal issues surrounding tip boards. “This is going to help a lot of small businesses like mine,” said Dan O’Gara, the owner of O’Gara’s Bar and Grill in St. Paul. “This is going to help people stay in our business.”
Not everyone, though, was convinced. Tom Prichard, the president of the Minnesota Family Council, said expanding charitable gambling to help pay for a Vikings stadium would be “encouraging addiction and indebtedness.
“You have the state in a sense preying on the people it should be supporting [to] pay for the stadium,” he said.
In the end, the legislation authorizing the sports-themed tip boards passed the panel on a voice vote, as did the overall stadium funding package.
But House Speaker Kurt Zellers was again ambivalent about the chances of the Vikings stadium plan passing the Legislature before lawmakers vote for a final adjournment in just a few weeks. “If it fits in with the schedule, as long as it’s moving forward on a fair vote, I think it’s proceeding along,” he said before Monday’s vote.
“I’m not going to exert any undue pressure to hurry it up, or to slow it down” said Zellers.
Under the proposal, the nearly $1 billion stadium would be built in downtown Minneapolis at the site of the Metrodome, where the Vikings have played since 1982. The team would contribute $427 million toward building the stadium, the state would add $398 million and Minneapolis would funnel $150 million to it. The team would also add $327 million for operating costs, and the city would add another $189 million.
Monday’s hearing focused narrowly on the state’s idea to allow electronic bingo and pull tabs in Minnesota’s bars and restaurants to fund the state’s $398 million stadium share. Over the weekend, charitable gaming interests reached an agreement with House Republican leaders to provide the charities with $36 million annually in tax relief as part of the electronic bingo and pull tabs plan.
The agreement, though, left state officials with an estimated $52 million annually for the stadium – enough to pay the state’s anticipated $42 million-a-year stadium obligation, but leaving less of a revenue cushion than before.
In another controversial feature, the new stadium plan would have four backup funding sources should electronic bingo and pull tab revenues fall short: A tax on luxury stadium suites, a sports-themed lottery game, using excess sales tax money in Hennepin County authorized to pay for the Minnesota Twins’ Target Field and a Vikings stadium admissions tax.
Both the Vikings and Hennepin County however objected to the backup funding ideas.
So did Ed Kohler, a Minneapolis resident. “There’s a good chance I could end up paying for the stadium three times,” he said at Monday's hearing, citing the possibility that state, city and county funding could be used.
The latest plan’s other feature involved allowing the charities to offer sports-themed tip boards, which would by itself provide the charities with $16 million yearly in tax relief.
Both Dayton and Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, the chief Senate author of stadium legislation, were visibly upset with not being made aware of the new agreement’s key features before they were made public late Sunday.
“Not telling the governor was a big mistake,” she said Monday. “I’m part of the game here, too.
“I should have been told,” she added.
Rosen also was lukewarm to the latest House stadium proposal. “I think it’s got some issues if people think, or perceive to think, that it’s unlawful,” she said.
She added that the proposal’s four backup funding sources were likely unnecessary, and that lawmakers needed to trust state revenue analysts who insist the electronic bingo and pull tab money would suffice. Rosen said her own new plan – introduced Monday – to allow electronic scratch-off tickets would also produce enough money to serve as a backup stadium funding source.
“We can use that for backup,” said Rosen.