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Legislators pushing for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium tried to revive racino gambling Friday as a possible way to fund the project -- a move that suggested they were scrambling to position themselves for a likely special legislative session.
Although there have been previous attempts to pair a new Vikings stadium with a racino -- putting slot machines at horse-racing tracks -- the latest effort appeared to be aimed at keeping both ideas alive past the Legislature's Monday adjournment. Republican leaders, who hold majorities in both the House and the Senate, dismissed the proposal, saying they remain focused on finding a way to erase the state's $5.1 billion deficit over the next three days.
The proposal was noteworthy because it was co-authored by Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, chief Senate author of legislation to help build a new Vikings stadium. She was joined by Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, who said his goal was to have racino "stay in the mix" as legislators search for money to help solve the deficit and build the stadium.
"I think everybody knows that we're going to go to a special session," said Hackbarth. But "you have to have something there to start the discussion" when legislators reconvene.
Under the new proposal, racino gambling would be permitted only at Canterbury Park in Shakopee and part of the proceeds would go into a "multi-stadium revenue fund" that would help build not only a $1 billion Vikings stadium but also a new $50 million ballpark for the St. Paul Saints in downtown St. Paul. Hackbarth said that, after the two stadiums were funded, the money might be used to build other large infrastructure projects in Minnesota.
Racino proponents had earlier estimated that the expanded gambling would raise $125 million a year, but Dick Day, a former state senator-turned-lobbyist for the group Racino Now, said Friday that his organization had not pushed the latest plan. An independent state analysis earlier concluded that racino would raise much less money: about $92 million a year beginning in 2013.
"I think that the stadium and racino, not necessarily linked ... are going to be in play" during a special session, Day said.
Friday's development came as the Vikings continued to plead their case for a new 65,000-seat stadium in Arden Hills, in Ramsey County. As the Legislature met during the midafternoon, Lester Bagley, the Vikings' vice president for stadium development and public affairs, huddled with some of the team's nine lobbyists just outside the Senate's main door. Afterward Cory Merrifield, the co-founder of SavetheVikes, a pro-stadium fan group, stopped senators as they left the chamber.
"Two-minute drill," said Merrifield, smiling.
The team and Ramsey County last week announced an agreement to have the Vikings pay $407 million toward a new stadium and have the county raise $350 million through a half-percent countywide sales tax. The state would contribute $300 million, largely through a series of taxes on those who use the stadium. State officials, however, have said the project also would need $131 million in road improvements surrounding the Arden Hills property.
Reaction to proposal
With DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders at an impasse over the budget deficit, the team's best chance of getting legislative approval seemed increasingly to lie with a special session.
Dayton said Friday he had not reviewed the proposal, but he expressed reservations. "I'd have to talk to the investment bankers," he said. "My experience is that they want secure revenue streams that are reliable in terms of their source and the amount of money they're going to generate.
"I don't rule it out," said Dayton, who has been a key stadium proponent. "But it seems to me that we'd be better off to get the revenues derived from the stadium operations itself."
Bagley said that he, too, had not studied the racino proposal but that legislators -- and not the team -- would determine whether racino money might be used. "Whatever folks over here decide, whatever they decide covers the state portion of the stadium solution, is up to them," Bagley said.
"Racino, in my mind, has always been the white horse out there that this thing [stadium] could ride into reality with," said Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee. He said the stadium "will be a special session event, I'm almost certain of it, and that actually works in the Vikings' favor."
"We need to go home for a week," Beard said. The stadium will "be part of a global agreement" during a special session, he predicted.
Reaction to the proposal elsewhere was mixed.
Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett, who has led the county's stadium lobbying effort, said he had not been consulted. "The population sure supports" expanding gambling, Bennett said of public opinion polls, "but then again they don't support a Vikings stadium, so who knows?"
Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said solving the state's budget deficit remains her first and, at the moment, only priority. "I haven't thought about" the racino proposal, she said. "Today is about the budget, it has to be about the budget."
Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, whose own racino proposal has floundered at the Legislature, said he had mixed feelings on using racino proceeds exclusively for sports stadiums. "My bill had it completely dedicated for economic development, which to me is an extremely high priority," he said. Using racino money for a Vikings and Saints stadium, he said, was "not really" his goal.