Koch, Zellers back referendum on sales tax increase, putting Arden Hills plan in jeopardy.
The state's top two legislative leaders now want local voters to have a say in a new Minnesota Vikings stadium project, a move that potentially creates a major obstacle for the plan.
"I'd like to see a referendum in Ramsey County," said Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, on Thursday. Koch added that there "should be a referendum" regardless of where the stadium is built.
House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said he also wants a countywide vote wherever the stadium is built. "I like the idea of having a referendum," Zellers said.
The owners of the Vikings have an agreement with Ramsey County officials to build a more than $1 billion stadium at the old U.S. Army munitions plant in Arden Hills. But stadium backers believe that voters would be likely to reject a countywide half-cent sales tax planned to fund the project.
"I think that puts the kibosh on the stadium project," said Republican Rep. Morrie Lanning, the chief House author of the stadium proposal. Nodding to the team's lease at the Metrodome that expires after this year, he added: "The Vikings will be sold, and they will move."
Lanning said the chances of a special legislative session this year for a Vikings stadium subsidy package are now "slim."
He said there is no longer enough time to resolve the project's financing package and surrounding road issues and then round up the votes needed for passage.
Instead, the stadium plan would probably have to wait until legislators convene in late January, Lanning said.
"The reality is, it's too late to do a referendum this year," said Lanning, of Moorhead. "If you do a referendum next year, you can just about [say] goodbye to any hopes on the stadium."
The referendum positions taken by Koch and Zellers are the latest in a string of seesaw stadium developments this week, including word that the Vikings might be willing to raise their financial stake in a new stadium and Gov. Mark Dayton's openness to allowing Ramsey County voters to weigh in on the proposal.
Koch dismissed the idea that requiring a referendum would in effect doom the project, although polls have consistently shown that public subsidies for a Vikings stadium are opposed by a large majority of Minnesotans. "I don't necessarily buy that," she said.
A Vikings stadium proposal introduced earlier this year -- and led by Lanning and Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont -- would have allowed a county to go ahead with the project without a referendum.
Five years ago, the Minnesota Twins won legislative approval for a public subsidy package for the team's new Target Field in Minneapolis, but only after a testy fight allowed Hennepin County to do so without a countywide vote.
Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley said the team wants to be treated the same as the Twins in regard to a referendum.
Bagley declined to speculate whether a referendum would virtually scuttle the stadium.
Zellers said the lack of a public vote for Target Field left some legislators upset -- including himself.
"We were going to pay for it [with a Hennepin County sales tax increase], and the other 86 counties weren't," Zellers said. "We wanted to at least have our say."
Like Target Field, a Vikings stadium in Arden Hills would rely heavily on money from a countywide sales tax increase -- this time in Ramsey County -- along with at least a $407 million contribution from the team and $300 million from the state.
Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett, a proponent of the Arden Hills site, scoffed at the calls by Koch and Zellers for a referendum. "Come up with a better solution," he said.
Bennett said that since the Legislature would first have to approve a sales tax increase by Ramsey County before the county could levy it, Koch and others were positioned to take the lead on the project.
"In reality, she's the leader. She and her caucus should come up with the funding. She's calling the shots," he said.
"They're the Minnesota Vikings, not the St. Paul Vikings, not the Duluth Vikings," Bennett added.
Staff writers Rochelle Olson and Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report.
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673