Vikings stadium bill skirts vote on sales tax

Like Target Field, a Vikings subsidy package wouldn't require a referendum.

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Authors of a bill to use public subsidies for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium say their legislation will allow a local government to increase sales taxes for the project without taking it to the voters first.

By receiving an exemption from state law, the Vikings stadium plan would follow the same road map that proved successful -- though controversial -- in 2006 for the Minnesota Twins' Target Field.

Five years ago, in a move that may have been the difference between success and failure, the Legislature allowed Hennepin County to levy the countywide sales tax that now pays for much of Target Field without a voter referendum.

The outline of the bill, which was released last week, does not address a referendum. But on Monday Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, and Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said their formal plan, expected to be introduced later this week, will detail such an exemption for any local government that wants to help fund the stadium. "If they want to put it to a vote, they can do so," said Lanning. "[But] they will have the option" of avoiding a referendum.

Voter opposition to public funding of stadiums in the past has led some advocates of those projects to say that an exemption from voter referendums is crucial.

That doesn't sit well with some legislators.

"If there's going to be a tax, there should be a referendum for the voters," said Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers. Peppin said she voted against the Twins proposal because, as a legislator from Hennepin County, her constituents could not vote on the county's decision to levy a 0.15 percent sales tax increase. "It was a deal-breaker then because it involved my taxpayers," she said Monday.

Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, agreed. "[I'm] irate. That Twins stadium never would have passed if it had a referendum." The Vikings stadium would be sure not to pass, she said, "because that's not even as popular as the Twins stadium."

The bill would have the Vikings pay $1 for every $2 paid by state and local taxpayers for the project. The state's contribution, up to $300 million, would come from naming rights revenue and a buffet of user taxes, including a sports memorabilia tax, a pro football player income tax surcharge and a Vikings lottery game. Local governments could levy a sales tax of up to a half cent, as well as separate entertainment, lodging, liquor, food and beverage taxes.

The proposal does not designate a location, although two sites in Minneapolis and one in Ramsey County's Arden Hills have been mentioned prominently. The plan also does not put a price tag on the project, although past estimates have put a new stadium at just under $900 million.

There were signs Monday that the referendum issue was leaving legislators conflicted.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said he initially favored a referendum for Target Field, but ultimately voted for the plan that exempted Hennepin County from having to hold one. "I finally concluded [that not requiring a referendum] was the right thing to do in the end," he said Monday. "I've got mixed feelings."

Holding a referendum on a stadium has, in the past, proven decisive.

Fresh on the heels of his success with Xcel Energy Center, then-St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman in 1999 launched a campaign to pass a half-cent sales tax for a new Twins ballpark in a November referendum. Coleman actively lobbied for the project, and supporters raised and spent more than $300,000. Opponents mustered about $8,000. Voters solidly rejected the stadium tax, 58 to 42 percent.

Even without a referendum, Target Field was a difficult issue for Hennepin County's seven county commissioners. Following large turnouts by opponents, the county board voted 4 to 3 to levy the sales tax for the project. All of the commissioners who voted for the sales tax were later reelected.

A referendum "doesn't make a bad idea any better," said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who voted for Target Field but dislikes the Vikings stadium proposal. "I don't believe in government by referendum. It lets elected officials off the hook for making judgments about these things."

Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson, who supports building a new stadium at the Metrodome site but opposes using the city's excess convention center revenues, said that a referendum requirement "would really sabotage the effort to build a stadium in this time of economic turmoil."

But Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who opposes public stadium subsidies, said that taking it out of the voters' hands would add insult to injury.

"We have a [state] law in place that if a locality wants to [raise its sales tax] they can, but they have to have a referendum. Skirting it is wrong," he said.

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673

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