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A new financing plan for a Minnesota Vikings stadium ran into immediate trouble Monday at the state Capitol, but had enough momentum to pass its first test in the House.
Hours after Gov. Mark Dayton and the chief Senate author of the legislation criticized a key ingredient of the new proposal, a House panel adopted the plan and sent it on its wobbly way.
The plan to fund the nearly $1 billion stadium could get more hearings in both the House and Senate this week before the Legislature begins a 10-day spring break. No Senate panel has yet approved the plan and any stadium deal likely faces choppy political seas as stadium supporters race against GOP hopes to adjourn the Legislature by month's end.
The proposal presented Sunday by Republicans in the House would create funding backstops for the state's share of stadium costs. It quickly drew criticism from several corners, and Dayton said a provision to also allow so-called tip board betting on professional sports games would violate federal laws against sports betting.
"It doesn't strike me at first glance as a viable option," the governor said.
"Do you think the governor's assessment is not entirely accurate?" Rep. Sheldon Johnson, DFL-St. Paul, asked at the hearing.
King Wilson, the executive director of Allied Charities of Minnesota, an umbrella group for the charities, said he felt certain that tip boards would be deemed legal and were different from outright sports bookmaking. A tip board, he said, is simply a numerical game that is not based on which team wins a particular game. "It does not matter who wins or loses," said Wilson.
The charities estimate that the new games would bring in $16 million a year.
But an analyst for the House panel told the committee he was unsure the provision could survive a court challenge. And earlier in the day, Tom Barrett, executive director of Minnesota Gambling Control Board, said New Jersey is trying to challenge the ban, but that the tip boards remained illegal.
Others tried to look past any legal issues surrounding tip boards. "This is going to help a lot of small businesses like mine," Dan O'Gara, the owner of O'Gara's Bar and Grill in St. Paul, said of the tip-board proposal. "This is going to help people stay in our business."
Both Dayton and Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, the chief Senate author of stadium legislation, were visibly upset with not being made aware of the key features of the House plan, which features a $36 million tax break for the charitable gambling industry that reflected the wishes of House Speaker Kurt Zellers.
"Not telling the governor was a big mistake," Rosen said Monday.
"I'm part of the game here, too,'' she said. "I should have been told."
Rosen said she was lukewarm to the proposal. "I think it's got some issues if people think, or perceive to think, that it's unlawful," she said.
Dayton also warned that the legal questions surrounding tip boards would not pass muster with the bond houses that will be needed to finance construction of a new stadium. The state must come up with nearly $400 million for its share, which has left state leaders groping for the roughly $42 million a year needed to make debt payments without tapping the state's general fund.
Hennepin County officials also huddled with lawyers on Monday over a separate provision that would tap excess county sales tax money for Target Field as another funding backup.
"That's a travesty," said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. "It is breaking faith with the people of Hennepin County. They are scrambling because they can't find their own solution to this problem, so they are taking other people's money. It's obscene."
County lawyers discussed Monday whether, depending on the wording of the final bill, the state could take the money without board approval. Even Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, the chief House author of the legislation, said he was unsure.
"This should give all levels of governments some heartburn," Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat said. "I am against this because they are backing up [a] state revenue shortfall with a local tax."
Zellers said Monday he will not work actively for or against the stadium proposal.
"If it fits in with the schedule, as long as it's moving forward on a fair vote, I think it's proceeding along," he said. "I'm not going to exert any undue pressure to hurry it up or to slow it down."
Hours before the vote, Dayton made no predictions on the stadium proposal's chances of reaching his desk.
"The coin is flipping in the air and I don't know whether it is going to come down heads or tails," he said.
Some Republicans have said they envision a scenario in which Dayton might trade his approval of education and government reform provisions he has spoken against in exchange for their support for a stadium.
"No one has approached me with any of those suggestions or offers," Dayton said. "I have heard the rumors, but nothing at this point has come to pass."