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After months of speculation, a proposal for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium will be unveiled Monday at the State Capitol just as legislators begin their final two weeks of work, still facing major decisions on the state's budget deficit.
In a note to lawmakers on Sunday, the likely chief House author confirmed that the much-discussed stadium drive would move forward despite opposition and a race against the clock before legislative adjournment on May 17. House Ways and Means Chairman Loren Solberg said the plan for the $800 million stadium would rely on "strictly user fees" for public funding.
"Nothing is set in stone. No deals have been made," Solberg said in a note to DFL and Republican legislators. "So you won't be blindsided, we are writing to let you know we intend to announce some options ... to start a discussion."
The note, signed by Solberg and Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, said that no stadium funding plan would be presented to Gov. Tim Pawlenty until a "state budget solution is figured out." But Solberg told legislators that because of "low interest rates, a good bidding climate and a 40 percent unemployment rate in the [building] trades, now is a good time to talk about construction jobs."
Lawmakers began the session in February staring at a $1 billion deficit. While budget cuts and federal money should help short term, projections show that the state's deficit could swell to nearly $7 billion by 2013. Legislators have yet to agree on funding for health and human services and education, which make up about 70 percent of the state's budget.
Stadium supporters and others have identified a series of possible revenue streams, including a sports memorabilia tax, a new state lottery game and sales taxes in Minneapolis, where the team now plays. But all of those proposals, according to proponents, face resistance from legislators, the public or local businesses. The president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce recently said his group opposes a hotel and lodging tax under consideration as one revenue source.
Frustration among stadium proponents bubbled up last week when Sen. Tom Bakk, the Senate Taxes Committee chair and likely chief Senate author, said supporters also did not know whether top House and Senate leaders intended to fast-track the legislation. House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the DFL-endorsed gubernatorial candidate, has remained vague about the stadium project. Solberg's announcement set off intense speculation over how far a stadium funding plan would go, and which route it might take in the House, where significant opposition is expected.
Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, who chairs a key House state and local government panel, said Sunday he is troubled by the prospect of stadium hearings at a time when legislators are cutting funding for the poor and he still has more than 400 proposed bills awaiting a committee hearing. Pelowski said that when Solberg talked to him last week about the Vikings proposal, Pelowski showed him pictures of groups representing people with disabilities.
"We're going to be cutting these individuals -- again -- and they have no billion-dollar owners, or million-dollar players," Pelowski said, referring to Vikings owner Zygi Wilf. "[Solberg's] reaction was, 'I know, I know, I know.' And I go, 'You might know, Loren, [but] I have to represent these people, and they have no safety net.' "
Meanwhile, there were reports Sunday that Vikings lobbyists had begun informal head counts of key legislative panels to determine whether they had enough votes to pass a proposal out of a particular panel.
House Taxes Chair Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, a key figure, said she was "disappointed" the stadium plan was moving forward despite the state's more pressing needs. "I'm going to fight it," she said.
A longtime opponent of public subsidies for sports facilities, Lenczewski criticized the fact that the announcement will be led by non-metro legislators -- Solberg, a DFLer, is from Grand Rapids -- and that many of the proposed funding sources would fall more heavily on metro residents. She said she fears that Vikings strategists may try an end-run around the House by passing the bill through the Senate and then inserting it into a House-Senate conference committee bill.
"It'll be an interesting final two weeks," she said.
Lenczewski and others also said that having the stadium drive led by outstate legislators in the House would mirror the controversial -- but ultimately successful -- strategy used by the Twins in 2006, when legislation that led to Target Field was approved.
But Hoppe said the momentum to help the Vikings is widespread among DFLers and Republicans. The team's lease at the aging Metrodome expires next year and the Vikings have said they will not extend it without a deal for a new stadium. The Vikings have offered to pay a third of the cost.
Hoppe said that even with only two weeks remaining, there is enough time to close a deal. "When your authors are Rep. Solberg and [Sen.] Bakk, I think there's probably enough time," said Hoppe of the two powerhouse legislators. Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, who chairs a House panel on property and local sales taxes, said he could see a stadium being approved -- provided the state first solves its budget dilemma.
"I do think the Legislature can think of more than one thing at a time," he said.
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673