By JENNIFER BROOKS AND MIKE KASZUBA
The new Vikings stadium bill got its first hearing Wednesday in the Legislature, but got no closer to construction.
After nearly two hours of debate and testimony, the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee abruptly opted against a vote on the bill, after several members from both parties expressed significant concerns about it. Bill sponsor Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, insisted however that the postponed vote was not a setback..
Following the hearing, Rosen said she would ask Sen. Ray Vandeveer, R-Forest Lake, the committee chair, to reconsider the legislation by Friday after stadium negotiators reexamined the bill's most controversial issues -- including using electronic bingo and pull tabs to fund the state's $398 million stadium share. In order to address concerns that the gambling revenues may not be adequate, Rosen said Wednesday that state officials were considering using user fees -- such as sports memorabilia fees -- to serve as a financial backup source of funding.
Stadium negotiators were expected to work frantically over the next two days to try to meet Friday's legislative deadline to have the bill clear its first committee. Senate Majority Leader David Senjem said however that, at least in the Senate, Republican leaders would likely grant the Vikings legislation a procedural exemption and not allow Friday's deadline to kill the proposal.
"It is still the best Vikings bill we're ever had," said Rosen.
But Wednesday's hearing showed that the legislation, which was introduced only days ago, may be in political trouble.
Vandeveer declined to say whether he decided against a vote on the bill because there were not enough votes to pass it in the committee, but said he too had concerns about having the state rely on an expansion of charitable gambling 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 concerns" about the state's stadium financing package. "It's close," said Robling, in response to whether there were enough votes on the 14-member panel to pass the legislation Wednesday.
The pro-stadium lineup included Vikings officials and local government representatives, along with fans like Larry Spooner, who was so happy to see a stadium bill – any stadium bill – come up for a hearing, he showed up at the Capitol at 3:30 a.m. to stake out a good seat for the 1 p.m. hearing.
“I consider myself the most passionate stadium fan in the state,” said Spooner, sporting head-to-toe purple and holding a sign: “Vikings Stadium Yes!”
But in a sign of the multiple problems the legislation faced, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak again 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."
Gov. Mark Dayton sent a letter to Vandeveer reiterating his support for the project. He said it would provide up to 8,000 construction jobs and 5,000 jobs among suppliers during the three-year building project.
But committee members voiced skepticism about whether the public investment in the stadium would pay off in the long run – especially since the team would probably be back in a few decades to ask for a bigger, more expensive stadium.
Repeatedly however the discussion returned to concerns about the bill’s plan to pay for the state’s share of stadium construction with revenues from electronic gambling.
Critic Tom Prichard, of the Minnesota Family Council, objected to idea of paying for new stadium by placing electronic bingo and pull tab machine in bars and restaurants. Electronic gambling, he warned, can be “as addictive as crack cocaine.”
The $975 million stadium would be built at the site of the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis, and be constructed with $427 million from the Vikings, $398 million from the state and $150 million from the city of Minneapolis. The Vikings would also contribute $327 million to the stadium’s operation and capital expenses, and the city would add another $189 million.