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The Minnesota Vikings won a decisive and long-awaited political victory late Monday when the House passed a public subsidy package for a new stadium, sending the project marching toward final passage at the State Capitol.
When the final vote was announced, two dozen Vikings fans -- most clad in team jerseys -- cheered loudly outside the House chamber and sang the team's fight song. Afterward, amid chants of "Build A Stadium, Save Our Team!" Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak made his way through the crowd and was congratulated by smiling fans.
The final vote came after a day of high drama and a weekend of intense lobbying by Gov. Mark Dayton and the team, and produced a relatively easy 73-to-58 approval in the House. Though Republicans hold a majority in the House, DFLers did the heavy political lifting on the final vote, producing 40 of the 73 votes. The victory was also noteworthy because House Speaker Kurt Zellers -- the leading Republican in the House -- voted against the project.
The stadium project now goes before the Senate, possibly on Tuesday, and could be ready for Dayton to sign into law by the end of the week.
"The voices of the people of Minnesota were heard tonight," Dayton said after the House vote.
"There's not many other issues that bring this many people to the Capitol," said Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, one of the project's biggest supporters. "Professional sports provides an escape from reality, a much-needed distraction from stressful lives."
In one pivotal change however the House voted overwhelmingly to boost the Vikings' contribution to the nearly $1 billion stadium, upping the team's share from $427 million to $532 million. The change, which would lower the state's share to $293 million, may not survive further legislative negotiating this week and was opposed by the Vikings.
"That particular amendment is not workable," Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley said. "[But] I don't want to take away from the moment."
Bagley -- notably -- did not say the team would reject the overall proposal should the provision remain.
The eight-hour House debate did leave many pleading for legislators to set aside the stadium at a time of a stressed state budget. "Let's not build a monument to misplaced priorities," said Rep. Doug Wardlow, R-Eagan.
Though Vikings owner Zygi Wilf had never explicitly threatened to move the team -- and was already committed to play in the existing Metrodome for one more year -- Monday's vote was driven by a sense that the team would leave without a new, taxpayer-supported stadium. The surge to build the stadium, which had been hotly debated across Minnesota, seemed to gain its final momentum after the National Football League commissioner made a personal visit to the state Capitol last month.
"Lo and behold, Commissioner [Roger] Goodell came to town, and people got starry-eyed," said Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan.
For the Vikings, the victory came after years of public polls that showed widespread opposition to using taxpayer money for a new stadium and after the team watched as the Minnesota Twins won approval six years ago for its own publicly subsidized ballpark.
Monday's vote culminated a long journey for the team, which in recent years had supported -- and then rejected -- plans to build a new stadium in Anoka County and more recently in Ramsey County's Arden Hills. The Arden Hills plan in fact was still viable at the beginning of the year, but lost steam when Dayton said that only a new stadium in Minneapolis could possibly win legislative approval this year.
Stadium supporters began the weekend believing they did not have the necessary votes to pass the agreement, but a handful of legislators came out in the last day to announce they would vote for it. One who changed was Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who had helped temporarily kill the project in a House committee last month but said that despite heavy reservations he was now supporting it.
Though Winkler said the lobbying by the Vikings had shown that the affluent were "very good at bending the rules" to get what they want, the project provided "jobs for construction workers right now."
In changing the proposal earlier during the daylong debate, the House voted 97 to 31 to increase the team's share by $105 million and lower the state's by the same amount.
Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, proposed the change, and said it would be accomplished by sharing proceeds from stadium naming rights, rather than letting the team have all of the money.
"It's only fair that the public have part of that contribution," Garofalo said.
Even with the change, Garofalo said, the proposal would still be one of the largest public contributions to an NFL stadium in the country. He said that no team offered a $443 million taxpayer contribution has ever turned it down and moved to another city.
Under the original proposal, the team's $427 contribution to a downtown Minneapolis stadium would be joined by $398 million from the state through allowing electronic bingo and pulltabs in Minnesota's bars and restaurants. The city would add $150 million to the project's construction.
But another proposal to fund the stadium's construction with user fees -- an idea that also seemed to be gaining momentum in recent days - fell to defeat Monday. The proposal to replace charitable gambling with taxes and fees on Vikings tickets, concessions and parking was soundly defeated by a 74-to-57 margin.
A bipartisan contingent of legislators Monday continued to fiercely oppose a gambling expansion, either for moral reasons or because it leads to more government spending.
Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said the agreement ensures that the project "becomes the stadium that losers built."
Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, the chief House stadium author, shook hands with legislators when the final vote was announced. With the project now going before the Senate, where it may face other changes, Lanning cautioned his colleagues not to dramatically alter the project with the Legislature on the verge of adjournment.
"There's a limit to how much we can squeeze" out of the team for the stadium, Lanning said. "If we squeeze too much, we may end up not having a deal." If that happens, he said, "I believe that the Vikings will likely leave."
Staff writers Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Jim Ragsdale contributed to this report.
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