Zellers walks fine line on stadium

House Speaker Kurt Zellers is caught in the middle on Vikings project, between supporters and budget hawks.

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Gov. Mark Dayton recently made a trip to House Speaker Kurt Zellers’ office to try to get his support for the stadium bill. Zellers has said he won’t block the project, but he has said he would not call legislators to request their support for it.

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More than 50 days after he gaveled the Minnesota House into session, Kurt Zellers remains a puzzle to those who want a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.

With the $975 million proposal teetering in the balance and the Legislature edging closer to adjourning, no one person at the State Capitol is likely to have more to say about what happens to the stadium this year.

Unless the plan passes a legislative committee Friday -- there are no hearings scheduled -- it will need a procedural exemption in the House and Senate to stay alive this session. While Senate Majority Leader David Senjem has indicated he will grant the exemption, Zellers, the Republican speaker of the House, has refused to say what he will do.

The five-term legislator from Maple Grove, a football fan and former college football player, has said that he will not grant the project any legislative favors. He says he is unlikely to decide Friday but could still rescue the plan late in the session by supporting its revival.

It's a disconcerting position for stadium supporters, who say they have been confounded by how little the speaker has done to help the project.

Only last week, Zellers was asked if he would make calls to fellow House members in search of votes if the measure was just a few votes shy of passing. "No. Again, it's the advocates' " job, he said.

"I think he's under a lot of pressure, but he hasn't said that," said Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, chairman of the House panel where the stadium project will have its first hearing -- if there is one. Hoppe said he believed that, should a stadium plan that does not rely on state general fund money come forward, Zellers would not stop the project.

"I asked him how he's doing," Hoppe said. "He's like, 'What pressure?'"

The pressure however is visible and comes almost daily.

When the 70-page stadium legislation was made public a week ago, Gov. Mark Dayton's first stop that morning was a private meeting in Zellers' office to lobby for the stadium.

Business leaders such as Ecolab CEO Doug Baker Jr. and U.S. Bancorp CEO Richard Davis have joined the stadium lobbying, focusing on House and Senate committee leaders and Zellers. With Dayton and Senjem already strong stadium supporters, Zellers is a major wild card. Adding to the uncertainty is that Zellers is acutely aware that approving public subsidies for a Vikings stadium does not poll well and could jeopardize the Republicans' 72-62 majority in the House.

So business leaders, who have close ties to Zellers and many top Republican legislators, have visited him regularly, sometimes one by one, stressing privately that the business community will support the plan and provide political cover for him and other nervous legislators.

"I have met with some of these business leaders," Zellers said.

They made a simple request, he said: "If they can get a deal done, that I am not going to squash it."

Zellers said he told them he would not stand in the way but also stressed that he will not lobby wavering legislators. For now, business leaders continue pressing Zellers to do more than stand on the sidelines.

Stadium supporters, however, have more to worry about at the State Capitol than just Zellers. That was evident Wednesday, when a Senate panel, after giving the proposal its first legislative hearing, abruptly adjourned without voting when it became apparent there were not enough votes to pass the plan.

Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, said Zellers -- at least in the House -- remains a key. "There's pressure, but I think it's from two sides, not one," Buesgens said. "One side [is saying], 'What the hell are we doing even talking about this?'

"The other side [is saying], 'Get this damn thing done,'" Buesgens said. "I'm sure he's [between] a rock and a hard place right now. I don't envy him that position."

Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, said she suspects much of the pressure to do nothing comes from Zellers' own House Republican caucus. "He has to speak for them. If he doesn't, he could be out on his ear. So, they are his first masters," she said.

"He has to put up a good game for the business interests," Greiling said.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said Zellers was employing a "duck-and-cover" political strategy on the stadium to avoid taking a stand. "What's driving him? Fear," Winkler said.

"Why would the speaker of the House want to raise revenue for a stadium when [the Republicans] shut down state government last summer because they didn't want to raise revenue?" he asked.

At times, however, Zellers has indicated that he was moving toward supporting a Vikings stadium. When the Legislature convened in late January, the House speaker raised eyebrows with his comments. "When you look at where we've come, even in the last six weeks -- let alone six months, or a year -- we've actually now kind of gotten down to a point where we're site-specific," he said at the time.

Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, chairman of the House Taxes Committee, said that he wants to give the stadium plan a hearing, but that he remains unsure where Zellers stands. "I haven't visited with him recently about the Vikings," Davids said. "I probably should stop down, and kind of see what the plan is."

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673

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