Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday called off plans to hammer out a solution this month for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium, saying Republican leaders had abruptly "walked away" from the idea of a special legislative session.
Key Republicans countered that the issue is not an emergency, dismissing speculation that the team is prepared to leave the state if no resolution is reached.
A frustrated Dayton emerged from a tense meeting with Republicans and said he was postponing his plan to announce on Monday a stadium-funding proposal. The meeting came after another day of stadium politics that erupted after House Speaker Kurt Zellers messaged lawmakers Tuesday night to say he had "repeatedly" told Dayton he opposed a special session and felt the issue could wait until next year.
While Zellers largely dodged questions on where he stood after the Wednesday meeting with Dayton, the DFL governor pointedly said that he was "very surprised" by Zellers' comments.
"Nobody's ever told me explicitly that they opposed the special session," Dayton said. "They walked away from it."
Dayton also said he was calling off a meeting Friday with Vikings owner Zygi Wilf. "The statement's pretty clear that they're opposed to this special session."
The day's events signaled that Republican lawmakers, despite mounting political pressure from the Vikings, are not convinced that the February expiration of the team's lease at the Metrodome is sufficient reason to rush into special session.
Republican officials pointed out that there is still no public funding plan or definite location for the proposed $1.1 billion stadium. "You can't have a vote on a special session without having a plan," Zellers said.
Several key House Republicans applauded Zellers' stance, saying it reflects the views of what might now be a majority of legislators.
Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, who chairs the House Property and Local Tax Division, said since the summer there has been a sense growing among House members "who do not believe there's an emergency."
She dismissed any threat that the Vikings, who have played in the downtown Minneapolis Metrodome since 1982, would leave Minnesota if a publicly subsidized stadium is not approved soon.
"We've seen the stadium games played out all the previous decades," she said. "There's always a threat."
She said too many stadium supporters were failing to examine why the Vikings needed to build a $1.1 billion stadium that would mostly reward Wilf and that had "little to do with the game itself."
Vikings officials called the standoff "very disappointing."
Lester Bagley, the team's vice president for stadium development and public affairs, said that "it's only going to get more expensive and more difficult to resolve, especially if the state allows the lease to expire with no action. The Vikings' lease expires in 90 days. At that point, we will be the only NFL team without a lease."
But other GOP leaders echoed the skepticism of Zellers and Runbeck.
Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Reform panel, said he agreed "wholeheartedly" with Zellers.
"I also don't think we've seen the best offer yet from the Vikings," Gottwalt said. The Vikings, he said, are "asking too much, frankly, from the state of Minnesota right now, especially given our financial situation."
The Republican chairwoman of the House Government Operations and Elections Committee, a likely first stop for a stadium public hearing, said she also saw no hurry. "I don't believe it's necessary," Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, said of a special session. "Nobody has told me that the Vikings are planning on leaving [Minnesota] in the next two months" before the Legislature convenes in January for a regular session, Peppin said.
Added Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, who heads the influential House Taxes Committee: "I don't think anything is going to be done or finished before Thanksgiving."
While the Vikings want to build a 65,000-seat stadium in the Ramsey County city of Arden Hills, the project took a political torpedo Tuesday when Dayton announced there was not enough legislative support for exempting the requirement for a referendum on any local sales tax increase to help fund the stadium. Ramsey County had proposed raising $350 million for the stadium through a countywide sales tax increase, and stadium backers had long argued that a referendum would effectively scuttle the project.
Despite the showdown between Dayton and Republicans over the stadium, Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he was buoyed by the Republican announcement that there would be public hearings at some point. "[But] it seems like we're going in the wrong direction," Bakk said.