The funding plan for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium began a last-minute, roller-coaster ride Monday at the Legislature, picking up many supporters but also a set of critics, including Gov. Tim Pawlenty and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher.
Within minutes after the proposal to build a $791 million stadium was released at a crowded news conference, even the Vikings expressed reservations about a plan that would commit them to paying $264 million and rely on a series of taxes on hotels, rental cars and National Football League merchandise.
In one sign that the plan was being rushed into place, proponents actually sketched out two ways for the stadium to be funded -- one that relied on financial help from a local government that has yet to step forward and another focused on building the stadium in Minneapolis, where the Vikings have played for nearly three decades.
"There are a lot of things to like in this bill, and there are things that are going to give people some heartburn," said Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, the Senate Taxes Committee chairman.
In her strongest statement on the Vikings stadium to date, Kelliher leaned heavily Monday toward heartburn.
"This bill still has a very rocky, tough road to get down to become law at this point of the session," said Kelliher, the DFL-endorsed candidate for governor who would play a pivotal role in any attempt to fast-track the plan before the Legislature adjourns in less than two weeks.
"I don't think that I'm going to do anything extraordinary here for this bill," she said, adding that the proposal had a "multitude of problems." Given the state's budget deficit and the proposal's own shortcomings, she said, "I'm not sure that this bill is ready for prime time."
Ready or not, the plan will get its first hearing Tuesday, going before a House local-government committee, where it is expected to get a friendly reception from Rep. Michael Nelson, the panel's chairman.
"I think it [has] a pretty good chance of getting out [my] committee," said Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, a labor union supporter who has touted the jobs that a new stadium would create. "Going forward from there, there could be challenges."
Not counting it out
But even critics said that, despite the plan's faults and the other odds facing it, they would not rule out its passage.
Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, who called the plan and its timing "disappointing," said, "I would be silly to say [it has] no chance." Many legislators, he said, had a "huge concern" over being seen as responsible for having the Vikings leave Minnesota because they could not get a new publicly subsidized stadium.
Under one stadium proposal, taxpayers would help pay for a site-neutral project over 40 years in four ways: a 1.5 percent tax on metro-area hotels that would generate $8 million a year; a 6.8 percent tax on NFL merchandise at the wholesale level in all of the state's metropolitan areas that would yield $16.9 million annually; $5.5 million a year from a sports-themed scratch-off lottery game, and another $5.5 million from a metro-area tax on rental cars.
A Minnesota stadium authority would also be created, patterned loosely on the independent public body established to oversee the Twins' new stadium.
An alternate version would ask the city of Minneapolis -- whose top officials have already criticized the plan -- to extend sales taxes now being used to partly fund the city's convention center to also help build a Vikings stadium in the city.
A sports-themed scratch-off lottery game would also be started, with the proceeds going to help pay for a stadium roof. The city, according to proponents, would own the stadium.
In both scenarios, which were contained in a single, 39-page legislative bill released Monday, the Vikings would be required to sign a 40-year lease at the new stadium. Should he sell the team, Vikings owner Zygi Wilf would also be obligated to use some of the profits from the sale to help pay the stadium's remaining debt.
The Vikings did not join in the proposal's unveiling at the State Capitol. Team spokesman Lester Bagley said afterward that the Vikings were not enamored of having to pay $264 million because the project was based on the stadium having a roof, a feature that he said the Vikings do not need. He said the team was committed instead to paying $210 million, which he said would be roughly a third of the cost of a roofless stadium.
"We [also] would be the only NFL team to sign a 40-year lease. I think our owners would be willing to consider that, but we need some flexibility," Bagley said.
"It's a great start," he added however.
In addressing critics who point to a potential $7 billion state budget deficit by 2013, Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, stressed Monday: "We will not pass a bill that adds a nickel to the [state] deficit, or takes a dime from nursing homes, schools, roads or hospitals."
Solberg, the stadium bill's chief House author, said the proposal was already generating widespread interest. "It's been a mix, but more positive than negative," he said of the responses pouring into his office.
Phil Krinkie, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, an anti-tax group, said Solberg and others were overstating how close legislators are to solving the state's short-term budget problems in order to see the stadium plan move forward. "[It's] totally ridiculous," he said. "There's no solution even anywhere in sight."
In another sign that the stadium plan still lacked the support of the Capitol's top players, Pawlenty said that while he is open to new ideas he reiterated: "We're not going to be raising or dealing with state taxes to subsidize that."
Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung issued an even stronger statement.
"We remain opposed to any stadium plan that includes tax increases, including the hotel tax, jersey tax, and rental car tax in one of the plans unveiled today," he said. "The governor continues to believe the team needs a local partner to be successful in their effort."
Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, a leading supporter of the stadium plan, agreed with the governor. "I fully understand the reluctance on the part of local government officials here in the metropolitan area wanting to stand up and cheer about this proposal," he said, referring to the budget cuts many cities and counties have endured. "[But] unless there is some local government partner ... it's not going to happen."
Staff writer Kevin Diaz contributed to this article.
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673