As they push an overall agenda of scaling back government, Republicans step gingerly on a public subsidy plan for a new Vikings stadium.
With a promise not to raise taxes and a party platform that largely rules out public subsidies for stadiums, the Legislature's Republican majority that will determine if the Minnesota Vikings get a new stadium is in a tricky spot.
Even as two leading Republican legislators prepare a Vikings stadium bill, their party's leadership has largely sidestepped stadium questions. Most Republican leaders insist that solving the state's $5 billion budget deficit comes first.
"I don't see how that fits," said Sen. David Thompson, R-Lakeville, a leader of the party's freshman class. Last week, he told a group of small-business owners that a stadium bill has less than a 50-50 chance of passing this year.
Republican legislators are pushing an aggressive agenda to shrink Minnesota government -- from cutting taxes and spending to scaling back environmental requirements and public employee pensions. Making an exception to provide taxpayer money for the Vikings could prove politically difficult. At the same time, the Vikings' Metrodome lease runs out this year and the team is again gunning for a new Minnesota home.
Wiggle room in the platform?
The state Republican Party's platform supports "exercising spending restraint" and asks the Legislature to refrain from using "tax increases as the first solution to every problem."
"Programs such as public broadcasting, sports stadiums and the arts should be funded by its users and voluntary donors, and not subsidized by the use of taxpayer money," the platform adds.
While state Republican Party chair Tony Sutton said legislators had "bigger fish to fry" than a Vikings stadium, he indicated that the party's platform was not necessarily written in stone.
"Generally speaking, the party would be opposed [to] using taxpayer funds for things like that," he said. "But until we get to the specifics, I really don't know.
"We have sort of general principles and guidelines that we follow," Sutton added. He said, however, that the party's platform does not go into depth on whether a specific "X, Y or Z [plan] is good or bad."
Still, Sutton said he had heard little talk about a stadium subsidy plan. "It's a sexy issue," he said. "But compared to the budget deficit and everything, it's not big."
Some legislators -- even conservative Republicans -- acknowledge that funding a Vikings stadium would not be a strict party-line vote. "I don't think it's a Democrat or Republican issue," said Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd.
Gazelka, also a first-termer, said he opposes using state money to subsidize a stadium but might be open to a more creative funding source.
"I have not formed a definite opinion," he said.
The image issue
Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, is the likely lead Senate author on Vikings legislation. She acknowledged that unveiling a Vikings public subsidy plan while Republicans roll out proposals to cut state government would present an image problem.
"I think we're still working that through," she said. "You need to be a little sensitive about that."
Following the collapse of the Metrodome's inflatable roof in December, Rosen promised to unveil a Vikings stadium proposal by late January. But in a sign that the legislation is facing complications, the proposal has yet to be introduced.
Last week, Rosen chaired a Senate health and human services panel meeting that illustrated the image problems a stadium bill could encounter given the tough budget choices the state faces. She listened as Michele Kimball, senior state director for the AARP, criticized a proposal that Rosen is co-authoring to phase out rate equalizations for nursing homes that get government medical assistance payments. The move could raise costs for residents who pay privately for their care.
"By 2014, nursing homes would be able to charge anything they wanted. It could be twice, three [or] four times," complained Kimball.
Some leading Republicans had talked early on of a stadium solution -- Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, chair of the House Ways and Means panel, in November suggested using money from expanded gambling. But the party's legislative leaders have recently been mum.
"Philosophically, I oppose it," said Thompson, the freshman Senate leader. "It's a little hard to justify when people are getting foreclosed on their mortgages."
Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, vice chair of the House Ways and Means panel, said a Vikings stadium was, at best, "a second-tier priority." Downey has been a Republican leader in pushing to scale back government. "We've got a budget to work on," he said.
Sen. Ted Lillie, R-Lake Elmo, said he has given a stadium "some thought." But the first-term senator said the Vikings need to contribute more money than the one-third they have offered and that a local government willing to partner with the team must be found.
"Is this the time to be talking about stadiums and public financing for that?" he asked. "I find that very difficult."
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673