Legislators question prospects of pulltabs, bingo as reliable financing.
Growing skepticism over the state's financing plan for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium has created fresh and serious doubts about the project even before its first legislative committee hearing.
Gov. Mark Dayton and supporters of a new Minnesota Vikings stadium scrambled on Monday to blunt doubts that electronic bingo and pulltabs could raise enough money to pay the state's share of the $975 million project without putting taxpayers at risk if gaming revenue falls short.
Over the weekend, Dayton and Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans reached out to charitable gambling officials to dull growing criticism of the state's $398 million financing proposal. Charities had fought for years to increase their take from pulltabs and bingo, only to see stadium supporters take much of the new revenue to pay for a Vikings stadium.
With a crucial legislative deadline fast approaching, King Wilson, the executive director of Allied Charities of Minnesota, said a "large gap" remained between the charities and the governor on the issue.
The impasse left key legislators unsure about pressing forward, particularly those on House and Senate panels where the stadium legislation would get its first votes. One DFL legislator said on Monday -- two days before the bill's first Senate hearing -- that the proposal was being held together with "duct tape."
"I do have some concerns ... about the funding -- absolutely -- whether or not it truly is a stable source of revenue," said Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, a member of the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee.
Robling, who said that Frans offered to meet with her personally, said she wanted to know whether state tax dollars would have to be used for the stadium should video bingo and electronic pulltab revenue fall short.
Frans said last week that video bingo and pulltabs would generate an estimated $72 million annually, and that nearly $10 million would be directed toward charitable gaming tax relief. He insisted that there still would be enough to pay the state's share of the stadium, but he could not guarantee that tax dollars would never be needed if the gambling revenue fell short.
Even legislators inclined to support the stadium paused at the new financing hurdle.
"I'm still reaching out to my local charities to see what thoughts they have," said Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport. "I just want to make sure they're comfortable."
The controversy is being watched closely by local charitable gaming officials. Mark Healy, gambling manager for the Mankato-based Community Charities of Minnesota, runs 41 charitable gambling sites -- most of them in bowling alleys. "I think we're getting away from the whole purpose of" charitable gaming "when the state takes it and says, 'Well, we're going to use charitable gambling for [a] stadium,'" said Healy.
Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, who chairs the House Commerce and Regulatory Reform Committee, where the stadium legislation would get its first hearing in that chamber, said the issue had at least temporarily stalled the project. "I think people are going to have trouble voting for it if it's causing the charities heartache," he said "There are ways to work it out -- I don't know exactly how," though.
Another key legislator, Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, the ranking DFLer on Hoppe's committee, said he doubted that the stadium bill would progress through any committees until the issue was resolved. He also said that the reluctance of the Minneapolis City Council to endorse the project -- Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak wants $339 million in city money for the stadium -- was another large roadblock.
In the stadium bill, "there are any number of issues that are issues," Atkins said. "But the two that are bars that need to be cleared before much happens at all are Minneapolis City Council support and the charitable gaming resolution."
State officials have said they would need about $40 million a year for the debt payments for a stadium. Even after giving charities an additional $10 million, the expanded gambling should leave the state with about $22 million extra each year.
Sen. John Pederson, R-St. Cloud, said he believed there was enough of a financial cushion should charitable gambling not meet targets. But, said Pederson, who sits on a key Senate committee, the overall prospects for the stadium among Senate Republicans were not favorable. "It's going to be difficult to move it forward," he said.
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673