You’ve got to hand it to proponents of a new Major League Soccer stadium in St. Paul’s Midway area. They’ve come to the Legislature with something previously unseen through four decades of intermittent extortion by professional sports franchises — a modest and nearly noncontroversial bill.
Broad bipartisan support exists at the Legislature for granting the proposed home of the Minnesota United soccer team both relief from the sales tax on construction materials — an almost trivial $3.5 million break through 2018 — and an exemption from property taxes going forward. The team’s owners will put up the rest of the facility’s projected $150 million cost.
It’s the smallest subsidy a team has requested from taxpayers for a new sports palace since I started following such pleadings in 1979 (as a child). If the Vikings owners had been that restrained in their demands in 2012, legislators would have queued on the Capitol mall to embrace them.
So why the worried look, Chris Coleman?
“The concern is, will there be a tax bill at all?” the St. Paul mayor fretted. He was present as a Senate committee chair set the stadium measure aside for “possible inclusion in the omnibus bill.” That’s standard lingo at the Capitol. This year, the phrase sounds uncommonly tentative.
By the calendar, the 2016 session is nearing its halfway point. Measured by output, it’s barely moved off Square One.
Two big bills that stalled last year — taxes and transportation — are dormant in conference committees, and a great deal of the remainder of the year’s agenda won’t move unless or until those bills do.
Legislators have started to stake out opening positions for a resumption of talks. On Thursday, leaders of the House Republican majority unveiled something very close to a “no new spending” budget, saying they would direct nearly all of the state’s $900 million forecast surplus into either tax cuts or spending on roads and bridges.
The GOP plan has ample room for the meager tax breaks the soccer stadium seeks. But pleaders for a tax bill for that reason or any other were not reassured. The GOP budget stands so far from the DFL position that it seems intended for the fall campaign, not the next month’s negotiations.
Another “no new tax bill” session could be in the offing — and if an alternate way is not found around that train wreck, 2016 could be a “no new stadium” year, too.
Wait until next year? That won’t work, the mayor said. The proposed tax breaks for the soccer project may be small compared with previous stadium shakedowns, but “they are 100 percent necessary, this year,” Coleman said. “Major League Soccer will pull this franchise out and award it to another community if we don’t proceed.”
That would be a sorry ending to the efforts of a son of the Colemans of Frogtown to revive a blighted hometown corner with a storied past.
(Permit a history interlude: The soccer stadium is due to rise at the corner of Snelling and University avenues on land that was once a stable and racetrack for pioneer fur trader Norman Kittson’s renowned thoroughbred horses. At the turn of the 20th century, the track was briefly used for automobile races and dubbed the Motordrome.
The site was chosen in 1904 by Thomas Lowry’s Twin City Rapid Transit Co. for its trolley car factory and maintenance shop. There, some of the most durable trolley cars in the country were built. Soon after streetcar service ended in 1954, demolition began. The buildings along University gave way to Midway Shopping Center in 1957; others were replaced by a bus garage in 1955. That Metro Transit garage came down in 2001. Since then: weeds.)
“This is a site that has not paid any property taxes for at least a half a century,” Coleman said. “This would be an odd place to say we won’t do what we’ve done for every other stadium. The two tax exemptions we’re seeking were a given in every other piece of legislation involving a stadium, and they’ve been done in multiple other projects.”
I tried to soothe Coleman by noting that the stadium bill is in the procedurally skillful hands of Senate President Sandra Pappas, whose St. Paul district includes the chosen site. If a way around a stalled tax bill is possible this session, Pappas will surely find it.
Then Coleman mentioned that St. Paul wants a few things more that ordinarily would be delivered by an omnibus tax bill. It seeks a modification of the state’s tax-increment financing law to better accommodate the redevelopment of the now-vacant Ford Plant site, a massive 140-acre project whose complexities include environmental contamination.
And like most of the state’s mayors, Coleman is rooting for an increase in state aid for cities. The Senate’s 2015 tax bill would return the aid total to its 2002 level, a high point before a spiral of deficits led to big aid cuts to cities. St. Paul this year is receiving $14 million less in state aid than it was due to receive in 2003.
By comparison, the House’s 2015 tax bill contains no city aid increase for most municipalities and a blow for Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. Under that GOP-backed measure, those DFL-dominated cities would each be in for a huge cut — in St. Paul’s case, $30.3 million this year.
Last year, that patently partisan swipe looked like something that Republicans would quickly drop in the tax conference committee’s give-and-take. Now, with St. Paul so eager for tax concessions for a stadium, GOP conferees are in a position to drive a harder bargain. How badly do you want those stadium tax breaks, Mr. Mayor?
No wonder Coleman looked worried.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and is at firstname.lastname@example.org.