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Negotiators for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium scrambled to rework the plan Wednesday after it stalled in a crucial first committee hearing amid bipartisan complaints that the proposal remains deeply flawed.
The setback came days after the nearly $1 billion project's highly anticipated unveiling, leaving DFL Gov. Mark Dayton -- the stadium's biggest State Capitol backer -- blasting Republicans and stadium opponents for doing "hatchet work" on the legislation and not saying what they would support.
"It gets to be, really, the theater of the absurd," said Dayton, who appeared visibly frustrated.
The proposal's swift struggles shifted the spotlight to Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers, who now could single-handedly scuttle the legislation if he does not approve a procedural exemption by late Friday. Zellers has said he would not grant the stadium proposal any special legislative favors in the House, where it is sitting with no committee hearing scheduled.
Zellers said he would wait until Friday to decide the stadium's fate.
By not acting, Zellers could slam the door shut on a stadium deal this session, likely renewing speculation that the Vikings owners could push to move the team.
Hearing becomes a grilling
The grilling at Wednesday's nearly two-hour hearing highlighted that passage is far from certain in either chamber.
The Senate Local Government and Elections Committee abruptly opted against a vote on the bill amid deepening questions about the state's reliance on an untested charitable gambling expansion to pay its share.
Supporters want to pay the state's $398 million portion by allowing electronic bingo and pulltabs in Minnesota's bars and restaurants, which state officials said would generate $62.5 million annually. If state estimates are wrong, taxpayers could be on the hook for the difference, a potential deal-breaker even for some of the most reliable stadium supporters.
Sen. Julie Rosen, the chief Senate stadium proposal sponsor, conceded that negotiators were scrambling to come up with a backup plan in case charitable gambling revenue fell short. The financial uncertainty came amid criticism from charitable gambling organizations that want more tax relief in the legislation, which could further reduce the state's take.
"In the event that not enough people gamble, what is the backup plan?" asked Sen. Pam Wolf, R-Spring Lake Park, who has co-authored a rival proposal to give the Vikings only a state loan for the project.
"We're working on that," said Rosen, R-Fairmont.
She said perhaps a sports memorabilia tax or a special state lottery game for the stadium would "blink on" in case new gambling revenue falls short.
The lack of certainty, however, fueled more doubts. "I'm not comfortable with the answers that we're getting," said Sen. Benjamin Kruse, R-Brooklyn Park.
Rosen insisted afterward that the legislation had not necessarily suffered a setback, but there were doubts the measure had enough votes on the 14-member panel to move on to the next committee.
Much work ahead
Following the hearing, Rosen said she would ask the committee's chairman, Sen. Ray Vandeveer, R-Forest Lake, to hold another hearing by Friday's deadline to get the bills through their first committee. Stadium negotiators were expected to work frantically over the next two days to try to meet the deadline.
"It is still the best Vikings bill we've ever had," Rosen said.
Vandeveer would not say why he decided not to call a vote on the measure. Instead, he said he shared concerns about the state funding for its share of the $975 million project.
Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, who asked that the discussion end without a vote, said there were "major questions" about the state's stadium financing package.
Are there enough votes? "It's close," Robling said.
As Zellers declined to say what he will do, Senate Majority Leader David Senjem said he would not allow the stadium to be killed by Friday's committee deadline, at least in his chamber. He said the first hearing showed that lawmakers needed more time to digest the 70-page bill.
"The only reason it's a mess is because we got it so late," said Senjem, who added that Dayton had been promising a stadium plan since Thanksgiving. "There are a lot of questions about the financial horsepower of electronic pulltabs."
The stadium would be built at the site of the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis with $427 million from the Vikings, $398 million from the state and $150 million from Minneapolis. The Vikings would also contribute $327 million to the stadium's operation and capital expenses, and the city would kick in another $189 million.
In a sign of the multitude of problems facing the project, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak acknowledged that he also did not yet have a majority of the City Council supporting the project.
"We have some support," the mayor said. "We need a little more support."
Outside the hearing room, Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley said Wednesday's events did not mean the project was politically dead this spring. "I don't think it's time to abandon the proposal," he said. "It's time to work on it, fix it."